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.
Surprise, surprise: Republicans cannot legislate to save their political lives. House Democrats passed a robust coronavirus relief bill months ago, but because Mitch McConnell seems allergic to their proposals like a witch is to water, his fractured conference and the historically inept Trump administration are scrambling. Sen. Josh Hawley said it best on Tuesday: “It’s a mess.”
While they stumble day after day through the legislative process, some incumbent Senate Republicans, still distancing themselves from Donald Trump and his sinking campaign, are increasingly attempting to run on legislative achievements of their own, such as they are. In this week’s Senate FYI, we take a look at how that strategy is translating into recent digital tactics.
Morning Consult released new polls of the Senate races and the presidential race in AZ, CO, GA, MI, and NC. Most notably, Thom Tillis and Martha McSally are severely underperforming Trump in their states, while Democratic candidates are more or less performing alongside Biden.
Days after Jon Ossoff’s wife tested positive for COVID-19 (Ossoff tested negative, FYI), David Perdue’s campaign ran a Facebook ad that made Ossoff’s nose appear bigger than it is and engaged in the anti-Semitic trope that he and Chuck Schumer, both Jewish, are trying to “buy Georgia.” The ad was taken down after fierce criticism.
In GOP infighting news, Doug Collins’ campaign has a new + highly-produced Monopoly-themed ad out against Kelly Loeffler.
Meanwhile, the GOP primary to replace Sen. Lamar Alexander is devolving into a race to the rhetorical bottom as Trump-endorsed Bill Hagerty has suddenly gone on the offensive against Manny Sethi, who is spending his own money to push his image as the ~true~ Trump conservative. Sethi, endorsed by Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, has, for example, condemned Hagerty for the heinous crime of supporting Mitt Romney…when he was the GOP nominee for president in 2012.
Unfortunately, Google’s Transparency Report didn’t update with the latest spending data on their platform, so this week we only have insights into the latest data and ads from Facebook. Still, there are some interesting nuggets – take a look:
Steve Bullock and a Montana engineering firm that his brother, Bill Bullock, founded are at odds with the NRSC. The Republican committee has been running an ad on TV and online that falsely claims that the governor “steered state money to his brother’s firm,” but because Bill no longer owns any stake in the firm and because the governor had no influence in the contracts the company received, both the firm and Bullock’s campaign have asked TV stations to stop running the defamatory ad.
With the data pared down in the above chart, it’s clear to see where the candidates’ digital priorities are – if they exist at all. For example, Mark Kelly’s campaign last week spent more on FB ads than they did on FB + Google ads combined the previous week. Meanwhile, Thom Tillis’ campaign, ever the low spender online, seems to be shifting their digital ad focus entirely to Google ads in recent weeks.
When running for re-election, incumbents face a very fair question: what have you actually done? They need to be able to respond, or better yet, preemptively provide an answer. Others will try to get voters to look at their challengers to distract from their own poor records. However, only a couple of GOP incumbents are making an effort to run on their records in their digital ads.
The senator who seems to be trying their hardest to distance themselves from Trump and run on their own is Susan Collins, whose Facebook ads have never once mentioned the president, or hardly even the fact that she’s a Republican.
Most recently, she’s been running ads against Sara Gideon, but she has run some Facebook ads highlighting her work on things like the Tick Act, the Paycheck Protection Program, and her work to lower the cost of insulin. Lots of her Facebook ads and her Google search ads from the past couple months also highlight her long-running bipartisan record.
In Colorado, Cory Gardner has been running a bit closer to Trump in his digital ads, but it’s been pretty clear that he’s trying to milk the Great American Outdoors Act for as much positive buzz as he can. From what we can tell, it’s worked. Check out these recent headlines from local outlets in Colorado:
The Gardner campaign only seemed to minimally translate this rare bright spot of earned media into promoting his candidacy online, however. They’ve only run four FB ads on the issue so far, and have only made a few social posts about it.
To be clear though: by our understanding, this is a clean bill that will likely do a lot of good to protect and maintain America’s public lands – but the timing of its passage is pretty conspicuous, and Gardner has an otherwise poor environmental record.
Finally, Steve Daines is also one of the few incumbent Rs running for re-election in a key race that seems to be running on their record online – but only just. For the most part, Daines has been using the legislative success of his peers (like Collins and Gardner) and subtly co-opting them as his own.
The president himself and the NRSC have both been helping Daines in this regard, especially when it comes to the Great American Outdoors Act. However, in some of his own positive Facebook ads, few as they are, it looks like the Daines campaign has been focusing on the benefits that Collins’ PPP legislation has helped Montana businesses.
He’s also making a nebulous promise to “break our reliance on China” by providing tax credits to businesses that leave the oft-maligned Asian country, and in one ad simultaneously attacking Bullock on healthcare and arguing that Daines is actually the better candidate to protect and strengthen Medicare (lest we forget: Daines voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act in 2017 without any replacement plan).
That’s it for this week! In the meantime – 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.