Welcome to the Senate FYI! Each week, we’ll track how the battle to flip the Senate is playing out where voters get their information—online. We’ll monitor spending on digital advertising, as well as watch how the campaigns are engaging supporters and voters online.
While many of us have been enjoying a short work week thanks to Memorial Day, several U.S. Senate races are heating up, if just for the moment – November 3rd is quickly approaching for everyone, but four key states are holding primaries over the next two weeks.
Montana and Iowa have primaries on June 2nd, while Georgia and South Carolina have primaries on June 9th. In this week’s Senate FYI, we take a look at if and how the Senate campaigns + and their allies in these states have altered their digital tactics ahead of their primaries.
A new poll of North Carolina found that the Senate race there is as razor-thin as ever, with voters supporting Cal Cunningham over Thom Tillis by just one point – even though only 58 percent of voters have even heard of Cunningham.
Steve Daines has continued his accelerated digital ad spending. In just two weeks, the senator’s campaign has spent over half of what Steve Bullock has spent on digital ads since he entered the race in early March. In Arizona, Mark Kelly’s campaign has become the first among competitive races to surpass the million-dollar mark in FB + Google spending – but frequent readers of The Senate FYI know that this has been a long time coming.
Both the DSCC and the NRSC upped the pace of their FB ad spending this past week, with the Democratic committee spending more than $250k on the platform and the Republican committee spending just over $170k. On both sides, this money seems to have gone almost entirely to fundraising or list-building ads. The DSCC’s ads use Obama, Biden, their endorsed Senate candidates, and even Dr. Fauci, while the NRSC’s ads overwhelmingly use Trump to fundraise or list-build.
*Our weekly spend data is a hair off this week because of how Facebook makes its weekly data available to the public through its ad library report.
Among the states that are holding Senate primaries over the next couple weeks, let’s start with Montana, which has seen a huge increase in FB + Google ad spending from Steve Bullock and especially from Steve Daines. While the state hasn’t been as hard-hit by the coronavirus pandemic, Bullock gave the counties the option to hold all-mail elections on Tuesday. All 56 took him up on it, and mailed a ballot to every registered voter with the return postage prepaid.
Most of Bullock’s recent ads are either conventional end-of-month fundraising ads or list-building ads advocating against Citizens United, but his campaign is testing a series of Facebook ads that attack Daines over ads featuring Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz, and Don Jr., calling them the “Washington cavalry.” The Daines campaign has mostly been using these surrogate ads over the past couple weeks, but to their credit, it does look like they’re testing at least a handful of mobile-first FB + Instagram ads.
This race doesn’t have any credible primary challengers, so it’s not surprising that the biggest change in the campaigns’ digital tactics ahead of June 2 is an increase in spending. But we’ll just have to see if the current spending pattern holds.
In Iowa, voters have been encouraged to vote by mail but may vote in person, even though some polling places have changed. Theresa Greenfield is the favored candidate to win the Democratic primary on June 2nd, given her significant fundraising + endorsements advantages. However, the Des Moines Register endorsed retired Adm. Mike Franken, and businessman Eddie Mauro has been outspending the Greenfield campaign on Facebook for months. Recent activity + spending from the Greenfield campaign and its allies also indicate that this primary may not entirely be in the bag.
The Greenfield campaign has itself upped their digital ad spending with new ads that feature their new TV ad, a post-debate straight-to-camera video from Greenfield after the recent primary debate, and a similarly-styled video from Rep. Abby Finkenauer. Not only that, but Senate Majority PAC and Emily’s List super PAC have also invested in digital ads for Greenfield and/or against Greenfield’s primary opponents.
Just ahead of the South Carolina primary on June 9, a federal judge eliminated the requirement that absentee voters acquire a witness signature, thereby letting more voters exercise their right safely if they so choose. But that’s not the only thing that’s changed in preparation for the upcoming elections in the state.
Last week, Lindsey Graham came out with a new TV ad explicitly asking South Carolinians to vote for him in the primary, as well as a host of new FB + YouTube ads criticizing Jaime Harrison for the unparalleled CRIME of receiving a donation from Hillary Clinton’s super PAC. Graham has also recently put out FB ads to fundraise off of a new PAC that’s advertising against him – called Lindsey Must Go – but it’s not surprising that it’s bothering him considering the PAC’s latest ad puts the senator’s hypocrisy in crystal-clear view.
Jaime Harrison’s campaign, on the other hand, has been primarily focused on putting digital ad money behind biographic spots on both FB + Google for the past two months. And perhaps that’s working for them, considering that two recent polls, while partisan, found that this may be a closer race than conventional wisdom would suggest. 🤔
In Georgia, we have one of the most uncertain U.S. Senate primary races. Like in Iowa, absentee voting is encouraged, but voters may exercise their right in person if they chose to do so. On June 9, Democrats in Georgia will vote in the regularly scheduled primary featuring Jon Ossoff, Teresa Tomlinson, and Sarah Riggs Amico. Ossoff has a significant polling and fundraising lead, but endorsements are scattered and the DSCC hasn’t made a choice in this race; if no candidate earns 50 percent of the vote, the primary goes to an August 11 runoff.
Among Democrats, Jon Ossoff has invested the most in digital ads, and it is not at all close: Ossoff has spent over $160,000 on FB + Google, while Tomlinson and Riggs Amico together have only spent just over $12,000 on the platforms. Just like in his run for Congress, Ossoff’s ads have focused on his experience as a legislative ad for and his endorsement from Rep. John Lewis.
However, while their campaigns haven’t been as active when it comes to paid digital media, the Tomlinson and Riggs Amico campaigns are quite active on organic social. There, the two campaigns have both made efforts to amplify their volunteers’ voices and highlight the endorsements they’ve received from local faith, legislative, and labor leaders. To put this in perspective, they’re significantly more active on Instagram: Ossoff has had a high profile since early 2017 and has only posted to IG 340 times, while Tomlinson has posted 465 times and Riggs Amico 840 times.
Finally, a quick look at a shifting primary a little further down the line–in Kentucky, on June 23. Amy McGrath has the backing of the DSCC and a huge war chest, but primary opponent State Rep. Charles Booker has recently been racking up some grassroots endorsements from local leaders. His campaign is running on an unabashedly progressive platform, going so far as to say in their ads that McGrath is a pro-Trump Democrat. His most recent FB ads (they’ve only run one ad on YouTube) are voter education ads.
And that’s it for this week! See any interesting posts, emails, or texts about the pandemic from Senate candidates that we missed? Send us an email! You can also check out our previous issues on our website, and be sure to check out our online dashboard for a detailed breakdown of candidates’ digital spending.