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.
Now that the federal government has enacted its fourth coronavirus stimulus bill and replenished the PPP, the debate over federal response has now shifted to what will be included in the fifth bill, which is set to be drafted in the House. And while the House itself debates whether or not to return to Washington at all, it seems Mitch McConnell has already lost interest in further relief.
Unprecedented national crisis be damned, he’s bringing the Senate back to confirm more right-wing judges, and he told state and local governments that he would rather they take the “bankruptcy route” than give them federal aid.
In this week’s The Senate FYI, we take a look at how candidates have responded online to McConnell’s proposition that we should starve the public education system and our first responder departments to own the libs. We also take a look at if and how Republican candidates, in their digital ads + messaging, have either followed or disregarded the NRSC’s memo advising them not to defend the president.
Pete Buttigieg is now also fundraising for John Hickenlooper and Gary Peters via email.
Quick clarification: last week, Facebook reported that the Cal Cunningham campaign had spent $0 on Facebook ads from April 12-18. It has since come to our attention that Facebook incorrectly reported the campaign’s ad spending on the platform that week (it happens more than you think!), and in fact, in that week they had continued to run list-building ads praising Dr. Anthony Fauci. Our apologies to the Cunningham campaign!
Google has also graced us with their most recent digital ad spending data, so we now have a more complete picture of candidates’ recent spending compared to last week. Even with that in mind, though, there doesn’t seem to have been any radical changes in the candidates’ spending patterns over the past couple of weeks.
In response to McConnell proposing that states go bankrupt, the DSCC announced that they were launching Facebook ads to highlight the Senate Majority Leader’s remarks. While they only spent between $500-$600 on these ads so far, they targeted them primarily at older voters nationwide, and also more specifically in AZ, NC, and MI.
The DSCC has also announced that they’ve made multi-million dollar digital + TV ad reservations in AZ, NC, IA, and MT.
One surprise to us this week is that Steve Daines has rather quickly ramped up his ad spending on Facebook and Google. While Steve Bullock’s campaign opened the governor’s run for Senate with a $300,000+ digital ad blitz that’s only slightly slowed down, we’ll be keeping an eye on Daines’ digital ads over the next couple of weeks.
Speaking of Steve Daines, it would appear that he was ahead of the curve when it comes to the NRSC’s advice to stick to attacking China. We’ve previously reported on his anti-China ads, but it looks like he’s putting even more money behind them now. He’s still running more of the same static ads from earlier this month, but now he’s out with a new anti-China video ad that portrays President Xi Jinping and the Chinese language in a fearmongering light – even though the characters featured seem to be completely random words and numbers. 🙄
Are the other incumbents in this cycle’s marquee Senate races indulging in similarly xenophobic tactics in their Facebook ads and elsewhere online? For the most part, not necessarily. Most of them are still sticking to the playbook we’ve reported on: they’re highlighting how their communities are coming together and taking credit for the aid that the federal government is sending to their states. On Google, almost all Republican candidates are mostly just running basic name ID-boosting search ads for now.
And just FYI, here’s the most recent time vulnerable Republican incumbents have mentioned Trump in their Facebook ad copy and how they mentioned him (and remember, the NRSC memo was distributed on April 17):
Thom Tillis: April 28 – “Protect Trump’s Senate Majority.” Steve Daines: April 9 – “ Because of my strong support for President Trump national Democrats want to see me defeated.” Joni Ernst: April 9 – “America is GREAT under a Republican Senate and President Donald J. Trump, but we have a tough fight ahead if we’re going to keep a socialist Democrat out of the White House.” (Note: this ad was first used around the time when Bernie Sanders was the Democratic frontrunner, and was just recycled earlier this month.) Cory Gardner: April 7 – “President Trump is calling on conservatives to protect our national parks.” Martha McSally: February 26 – “Mark Kelly said he would have voted to remove Trump from office, and now, he said he would SUPPORT Bernie Sanders.” Susan Collins: Never ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Martha McSally is now back on the board after taking a weeks-long campaign hiatus. She’s out with two new video ads: one touts the volunteer work she’s recently done and another features positive local cable news hits. Only a couple of them even mention China, though, and only in the ad’s copy.
Cory Gardner’s campaign still doesn’t seem to be spending much money on digital ads, but he’s still running the same video ads from last week that also argue that the “Chinese Communist Party must be held accountable,” whatever that actually means. Similarly, Thom Tillis still hasn’t spent a whole lot on Facebook, but his campaign has made space in their digital ad budget to test list-building ads that ask if China should be held accountable.
Finally, neither Joni Ernst nor Susan Collins has run any Facebook ads mentioning China, at least not yet. Most recently, Ernst has been running the same ad featuring Sarah Huckabee Sanders, while Collins ran a handful of ads claiming ownership over the PPP (which is fair, because she did, in fact, co-write that policy), but she only ran them around the time when the most recent stimulus bill became law.
Finally, we wanted to take a look at how Republican candidates are avoiding – or aligning with – their caucus leader’s recent proposal to let states go bankrupt, and how Democratic candidates are reacting in their digital messaging.
From what we can see, no Republican Senate candidates are running digital ads advocating that states should go bankrupt, not even Mitch McConnell. We imagine that’s because it’s a pretty easy logical leap from that to “X candidate does not care about my community,” which isn’t typically a message you want to pay for persuadable voters to see. Some Democrats, however, do want voters to make that conclusion about McConnell and Republicans, and they were quick to act on the opportunity.
As we mentioned earlier, the DSCC is up on Facebook on the subject, but Amy McGrath is the candidate leading the charge here. Starting April 25, her campaign has run dozens of versions of the same ad hitting the Senate Majority Leader on his position. Interestingly, her campaign is overwhelmingly targeting young women in Kentucky with this particular campaign.
McGrath has also been the most vocal Democratic Senate candidate about the issue, at least on social media. She’s been pushing the issue almost exclusively on Twitter, where most other candidates are keeping their comments to. On Wednesday, she put out a video on the platform that’s pretty much just a transcription of his remarks, and it’s gotten nearly 500k views.
Other than that, Raphael Warnock and Cal Cunningham seem to be the only two Democratic Senate candidates to have posted about McConnell’s remarks. And much like with their paid digital media, Republicans have been dead silent about the issue on social media. Will that change in the coming weeks as the next stimulus bill is being debated, especially now that Trump has shown favor for McConnell’s idea? We’ll just have to see.
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.