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.
Mitch McConnell may have required senators to come back to DC to do anything but pass more coronavirus relief, but as long as the Trump administration is unable to systematically tackle the pandemic, campaigning is still an exclusively virtual activity. We’ve already covered what that means for the campaigns and candidates themselves, but this week we’ll look at what it means for outside groups.
For the majority of the cycle so far, the only groups that have been reaching voters online in a meaningful way have been the campaigns themselves and the parties’ campaign committees. But in recent weeks, big outside groups like Priorities USA and others have also been making splashes in online ads in key races – so let’s get into it.
Pete Buttigieg has been emailing Democratic Senate candidates’ supporters for a couple weeks now, but his Win the Era PAC has just announced its first slate of endorsements, which include Cal Cunningham and Jaime Harrison. The PAC hasn’t run any digital ads yet, but we’re keeping an eye out.
A Republican internal poll in Georgia found that David Perdue leads Jon Ossoff by a 43-41 margin. In the special Senate election, Doug Collins and Kelly Loeffler are locked at 19-18 percent respectively, followed closely by Matt Lieberman at 17 percent and Raphael Warnock at 9 percent.
In an email to supporters, Rep. Roger Marshall announced that an internal poll – conducted by the same outfit that did the above poll in Georgia – found that Marshall leads Kris Kobach in the June 1st Kansas Senate GOP primary at 33-26 percent, respectively.
And speaking of Kansas, the Barbara Bollier campaign launched their first TV ad this week, which highlights the fact that she and both of her parents are doctors. They’re not running the ad on FB or Google yet, but they are using it to fundraise from their email list.
The NRSC thinks it has found an angle on Mark Kelly this week by stretching to tie him to a company he founded and to a Chinese tech giant that once invested in it.
Yesterday, Mitch McConnell admitted that his party’s grip on the Senate majority is not as firm as he’d like: “It’s a challenging environment. It has been consistently throughout this cycle. Just look at the numbers.” And he’s right. Just look at these FB + Google ad spending numbers:
After months of spending around $20,000 on FB + Google ads each week, the Gary Peters campaign seems to have scaled back their spending for now, while the Theresa Greenfield campaign may finally be ramping up their spend.. According to our records, this past week was the first week in 2020 that team Greenfield spent more than $10,000 on FB + Google ads.
So far, the only outside groups that have had a meaningful, sustained online presence in this cycle’s key Senate races have been the DSCC, NRSC, SMP, and the Senate Leadership Fund. There have been one-off digital campaigns from outside groups here and there, but according to Facebook’s Ad Library Report, groups like Priorities USA and Majority Forward have been outspending even the candidates in some states.
Here’s how much some of the biggest outside groups have spent on FB + Google ads in key Senate races in the past 30 days, according to the respective ad libraries (note that MI and MT don’t seem to have had any significant online spending from outside groups yet):
Priorities USA + Majority Forward: $109,123*
Unite for Colorado: $23,761
Rocky Mountain Values: $12,514
Iowa Forward: $42,315
Priorities USA Action + SMP: $103,258
Maine Momentum: $46,345
Priorities USA + Majority Forward: $147,835*
Piedmont Rising: $103,577
*These data points only reflect Priorities USA Action + Majority Forward’s Facebook spending. The groups are running joint ads in both NC and AZ, and Google doesn’t provide comprehensive data on geotargeting, which makes it difficult for third parties like us to determine how much they’re spending on ads targeting different states. All told, though, the groups have spent $106,300 on their joint Google ads.
Now before we dig into how state-specific outside groups are putting money behind their digital messaging, let’s take a look at the national outside groups: Senate Majority PAC, their affiliated 501(c)4 Majority Forward, Priorities USA, and the NRSC.
While the DSCC seems to have dialed down its online spending and hasn’t run candidate-specific Facebook since early March, SMP is going full steam ahead with its digital ad programs. On their own pages, they’ve primarily been running FB + short YouTube ads against John James and attacking him on health care, while a handful of their recent ads have also attacked Cory Gardner and Joni Ernst.
To reach voters in ME, SMP has joined up with Priorities USA Action to run digital ads under “Maine Together.” Their most recent joint ads are the same :30s ad that feels like a traditional TV ad and that’s just been recut for FB + YouTube testing.
In Arizona and North Carolina, Priorities USA and Majority Forward have partnered to run joint ads using the pages “A Better Arizona” and “North Carolina Before Party.” In both cases, the pair is running Google search ads, and on both YouTube and Facebook they’re running the same video ads against Martha McSally and Thom Tillis that highlight how incompatible their positions are with the pandemic.
On the Republican side, the biggest outside spender across the board is the NRSC, which has spent a total of $0 on Google ads so far this year, but in the past 30 days the committee has spent $319,672 on Facebook. Like their Democratic counterpart, most of their Facebook ads aren’t race-specific – they’re for fundraising. They usually promote the president and attack Chuck Schumer, but some of them are pretty unique. In late April they advertised some LIMITED EDITION Trump playing cards, and live from Rome, it’s Newt Gringrich!
Now let’s take a look at the biggest state-specific groups that are running digital ads for or against certain Senate candidates. First, in Maine, we have Maine Momentum (not to be confused with SMP’s and Priorities USA Action’s Maine Together), which runs its Facebook ads under a page called “16 Counties Coalition.” Most recently, they’ve run Facebook ads calling on Mainers to share their coronavirus stories as well as ads that boost damaging news stories for Susan Collins. Their recent YouTube ads feature a retired social worker who recorded a testimonial against Collins from home.
In Colorado, we have one of the only state-specific outside groups running digital ads against a Democrat. Unite for Colorado, for which very little information is publicly available, has been running FB + Google ads against John Hickenlooper, and by extension Jared Polis, about Hickenlooper’s use of public funds before and after his time as governor.
In Iowa, 501(c)4 non-profit Iowa Forward is running grassroots-themed ads on Facebook under the name Iowa Voices, mostly just to organize Iowans around health care, but some do make direct CTAs against Joni Ernst. In recent YouTube ads, though, the group is more direct, and they feature a retired Iowa veteran calling out Ernst for voting to take away protections for Iowans with pre-existing conditions.
Finally, in North Carolina, another 501(c)4 by the name of Piedmont Rising is using their Facebook ads to boost local news stories that are damaging for Thom Tillis and his record on health care. Their YouTube ads (and a couple of their recent Facebook ads) use an interesting tactic: they’re produced to look like cable TV spots. They even have a whole website dressed up to look like a news site that really just aggregates bad stories for Tillis, Trump, and Republicans, while interspersing their own ads in there.
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.