Welcome to FWIW Virginia, where we analyze digital spending trends on both sides of the aisle in advance of the 2019 Virginia legislative elections. Each week, we look at whose digital spending is up, whose is down, and whose is non-existent across the Commonwealth.
For what it’s worth, some of it might surprise you.
First quarter finance reports are out, and Republicans continue to have a cash advantage in Virginia. But Democrats have narrowed the overall gap they faced in previous elections –– in part thanks to an expanded network of donors. This week we dive into how some campaigns have leveraged online communication to grow their number of small-dollar donors.
2019 by the numbers
We’re tracking digital investment by party committees, statehouse leadership and candidates in some of the top competitive state house and senate races in Virginia in advance of the 2019 state legislative elections. Here is how investment by Republicans and Democrats compare since the 2018 midterm elections.
Here is a list of top Virginia political spenders on Facebook the week of April 7-13.
Deep Dive: Virginia is for small-dollar donors
The first quarter finance reports give us an idea of how strong of a position candidates running for the General Assembly are. So far, Republicans have a clear cash on hand advantage in both the House and Senate. This isn’t out of the ordinary in Virginia where Republicans tend to raise more money than the Democrats.
Democratic statewide executive officeholders’ fundraising hauls have clearly been crippled by the recent scandals in Virginia. However, former Governor Terry McAuliffe announced last night that he will not be running for president and instead will turn his attention to flipping the Virginia statehouse blue. McAuliffe served a successful term as governor and is known as a prolific fundraiser, which could make up for the deficit left by Governor Ralph Northam.
Campaign Committee Dollars Raised in Q1 by McAuliffe vs. Northam
The purple bar shows the amount raised pre-General Assembly session, while the green bar represents the amount raised post-session. Graphic from the Virginia Public Access Project.
Though Republicans have the overall cash advantage, we noticed that Democrats in the most competitive House and Senate districts tended to receive a greater number of contributions than their Republican opponents, which could signify a larger base of support from the outset. The table below shows campaigns in descending order by the number of contributions they received last quarter compared to their online following and how much they spent on Facebook advertising.
Candidates that invest time and energy into building a social media following and engaging supporters online raked in a higher number of contributions, which gives these campaigns a larger pool of donors to fundraise from going forward. And for candidates new to the political scene, running paid digital advertising early in the cycle can help to build name ID, a supporter list, and raise small-dollar donations.
Democrats swept the top ten of the list for most contributions, but Delegate Danica Roem by far outpaced the field. This is in large part due to her aggressive #WestboroBackfire social media campaign that we covered a month ago. By posting her ActBlue page dozens of times online and rallying her supporters against the Westboro Baptist Church’s bigotry, Roem demonstrated how to both build and leverage an online following to power a campaign.
Lee Carter has followed a similar model to Roem by cultivating a robust Twitter audience with over 34,000 followers. He’s digital savvy and keeps his ActBlue pinned to the top of his Twitter profile, which helped him land near the top of the list for most contributions.
Though this is her first run for General Assembly, Veena Lothe has built up strong grassroots support online and her finance report shows it. Her paid digital program –– the largest in the Democratic field –– helped her receive the eighth most contributions among candidates in the districts we are keeping an eye on. Lothe was outraised by Delegate Debra Rodman, her opponent for the Democratic nomination in Senate District 12, but her online outreach may be helping her lock-in support ahead of the June 11 primary election.
Of course, a digital presence isn’t the only factor that contributes to a larger donation number. Shelly Simonds made national headlines when she lost the 2017 House District 94 race by a random drawing, so her surge in donations may be fueled by Democratic activists excited for a rematch. And Dan Helmer most likely has a large email list leftover from his unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination in Virginia’s 10th Congressional District in 2018.
As the 2020 presidential race demonstrates, cultivating small-dollar donors can pay dividends for campaigns. Democrats should lean into their donor advantage –– and the easiest way to do that is to double down on their digital advertising, communication, and organizing. By building out these networks of grassroots donors, Democrats can ultimately overcome the Republicans’ cash advantage.
Investing in digital early helps campaigns expand their base of donors. From insurgent challengers to incumbents with national profiles, candidates that took the time to develop an online following or put money towards online advertising brought more people into the fold –– and that can pay dividends down the road as they continue to engage and fundraise off these supporters.
Bonus: Dems on Offense
For the past few weeks, we’ve written about how digital ads in Virginia have almost completely revolved around Democratic incumbents –– putting Democrats on defense. But this past week, the Virginia House Democrats began to run attack ads against Kirk Cox and Todd Gilbert –– members of the Republican House leadership –– for killing the Equal Rights Amendment last session. And they’re intense…
If you (like us) want to do more to make sure Democrats take control of the Virginia House and Senate in 2019, reach out to us at [email protected] to learn more about what we’re planning for the 2019 state legislative elections.