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.
This week, us political nerd got our hands on Q1 FEC reports. The majority of this quarter took place pre-pandemic, so these should give us an idea of which Senate candidates fundraised well in a roaring economy, and which ones have cash on hand to endure the challenges ahead.
At the same time, the politics of the COVID-19 pandemic are becoming clearer by the day. In this week’s Senate FYI, we take a look at how Senate Republicans running for re-election are continuing to take credit for helping Americans survive even though members of the GOP, including the president, are on the record with putting the economy ahead of our very lives.
Reddit has now made their political advertising data publicly available. We looked at 2020 spending data on the platform so far, and zero Senate candidates have spent any money on Reddit ads. However, back during the NC Senate primary, Mitch McConnell’s Faith & Power PAC spent up to $8,000 on Reddit ads targeting progressives on the platform pushing its preferred Democratic candidate. 🤔
A new poll out of Kansas found that in a hypothetical matchup between Barbara Bollier and Kris Kobach, Kansans would prefer Bollier by 2 points. The poll also found that Kansans prefer the Democrat by 5 points after hearing more about each candidate. And, further giving Kansas Dems hope in the race to replace Pat Roberts, Bollier raised over $2 million in Q1.
While Martha McSally brought in a respectable $6.3 million last quarter, Mark Kelly’s absolutely relentless online fundraising operation has helped his campaign net a whopping $11 million in Q1. Among Senate candidates, only Amy McGrath brought in more money than him last quarter.
Theresa Greenfield brought in more than $2 million last quarter, bringing in more money than any Iowa U.S. Senate challenger has ever raised in the first quarter of an election year. However, Joni Ernst has actually raised the most money of any candidate ever in the same time period, clocking in at $2.75 million, with $6.5 million on hand.
Susan Collins’ approval rating continues to tick down. A recent poll found that while all other members of Maine’s congressional delegation have positive approval ratings, Collins has a net negative rating of -15.
Among Democrats running for Senate in the most competitive races in America, Mark Kelly is the number one spender on Facebook and Google ads. We also expect Theresa Greenfield to overtake Joni Ernst’s spending soon. These and other digital spending trends are remaining stable, but that’s likely to change as campaigns find their new footing in this socially-distanced world and as campaigns start to heat up this summer.
And it’s a good thing for some Republican incumbents that they’ll be getting this air cover. Thom Tillis, in particular, is in some trouble. Cal Cunningham outraised the junior senator by about 3-to-1 last quarter, and Tillis has still spent almost nothing online. Similarly, Sara Gideon also outraised Susan Collins by nearly 3-to-1 last quarter, and regular readers of this newsletter know that Gideon has been easily outpacing Collins in Facebook + Google ad spending for months.
Finally, we’re encouraged by the fact that Steve Bullock’s campaign is continuing to spend heavily on digital ads, but digital strategy is more than just paid media. As of this writing, the governor’s Senate campaign has a sparse organic online presence: they post every other day on Facebook, they’ve only tweeted 17 times since they launched the campaign last month, and they’ve only posted once to Instagram so far. And all the while, Steve Daines is out here recording his own Instagram stories. Perhaps the Bullock campaign is relying on the governor’s existing channels, which are each putting out a post or a tweet at least every day – but will that be enough?
We recently argued in a previous issue of The Senate FYI that Republicans running for Senate are keeping their digital messaging about the pandemic and the government’s response narrow: focusing solely on the good news while all but ignoring what more must be done. The Bulwark recently made a similar argument, that the Republican playbook is to accuse critics of engaging in “petty politics,” take sole credit for the pork they’re bringing home, and at all costs avoid blaming the president for anything. Sound familiar?
Thousands of Americans are dying every day, and it’s going to take years to dig ourselves out of the hole we’ve fallen into in these past four weeks, but it seems these Republicans are sticking to this reductive, misleading messaging strategy.
Most recently, it goes like this: the CARES Act created the Paycheck Protection Program, which was intended to help small businesses keep payroll. However, the brand-new program, something that Americans are only just coming around to understanding if at all, just ran out of money this morning.
This then results in Republicans engaging in the same double-speak for which the president is so notorious. They simultaneously promoted themselves as saviors for creating this fund and blamed Democrats for not allowing the government to fund it more (when it should have had more funding in the first place).
Predictably, though, the classic GOP strategy of taking advantage of public confusion to push their own factually dubious narrative extends beyond the CARES Act and their social media feeds. Susan Collins, for example, is now running ads there taking credit for getting federal funds for Maine, dodging an opportunity to hold the president accountable for having to fight for funds in the first place.
Similarly, Steve Daines tested Facebook ads attacking China for the pandemic, which allows him to avoid holding the president accountable for letting it devastate the country to the degree that it has.
On the other hand, just as we reported two weeks ago, Democrats’ messaging is more reflective of the reality on the ground, and we’re encouraged by how they’re adapting to digital-first campaigning.
Straight-to-camera videos, for example, are currently the tactic du jour, as indicated by candidates everywhere using it to talk both to the press and their supporters. And while it’s always been common to use earned media in campaign messaging, Gary Peters’ campaign, for one, has realized that this unique WFH situation means that the candidate can record a TV press hit and a relatable, organic-looking straight-to-camera video at the same time.
We also want to draw attention to the fact that candidates are using this new digital-first environment to engage with supporters and voters. John Hickenlooper’s campaign, in particular, has recently excelled at this through their Instagram, which boasts a really strong Instagram-first branding aesthetic – or, at least, the appearance of one, which is just as important (just like the ridiculously, absurdly large cookies he made for Easter).
By regularly drawing attention to (and tagging!) small businesses and restaurants in Colorado, his campaign has the opportunity to reach audiences that might not have otherwise been at all engaged in politics.
We also want to applaud the Hickenlooper campaign for creating a list-building campaign that is publicly engaging from tip to tail. For the past month or so, Hickenlooper’s campaign has made calls for Coloradans to share their COVID-19 stories, gathering their phone numbers and emails along the way. Now, his campaign is posting these stories to their Twitter and Facebook feeds via graphics that are optimally designed for their relative platforms.
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.