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 all over the internet.
On Tuesday, Democrats in 14 states will vote for president – but in Alabama, North Carolina, and Texas, voters will decide who they want to run for Senate. This week, we’ll take a look at how Senate primary candidates in those three states invested in (or ignored) digital advertising. We’ll also take a look at which Republican Senate candidates, if any, are using Dem-frontrunner Bernie Sanders in their digital advertising.
Kamala Harris endorsed Raphael Warnock in Georgia’s special Senate election. This is the latest sign of institutional support for Warnock in the race after earning the endorsements of the DSCC and Stacey Abrams.
In non-Georgia news, Susan Collins complained in a closed-door GOP dinner about “dark money” groups advertising against her (and they say irony is dead). Her campaign is actually the fourth-biggest spender on Facebook in Maine, but she may be referring to the next biggest spender, Maine Momentum.
By the numbers:
Sara Gideon continues to blow everyone out of the water in terms of digital spending by reaching almost $500,000 spent so far this year. It also looks like Gary Peters has nearly doubled his digital spending from last week, but Republicans across the board have yet to accelerate their digital investment.
Here’s how much each candidate in six competitive Senate races spent on Google + Facebook last week:
Who’s feelin’ the Bern?
Bernie Sanders took on full frontrunner status after his big win in Nevada last week, and Republican U.S. Senate candidates aren’t hesitating to use the Vermont senator to try to drag down their Democratic opponents.
Martha McSally was one of the first to attach her opponent to Sanders in her digital advertising. She attacked Mark Kelly for supporting Trump’s removal from office after his impeachment and for supporting Bernie Sanders. That’s it, that’s the ad. 🙄
Donald Trump’s former BFF Jeff Sessions is also using Bernie Sanders to try to appeal to the president’s base in some of his most recent acquisition ads…but more on this race below.
While most other candidates don’t seem to have used Sanders in their digital advertising (yet), they have started invoking him in their organic social content. Kelly Loeffler, for example, announced a new ad on Twitter that calls to “Stop Bernie Sanders’ Socialism.”
Thom Tillis did a whole thread about Sanders before Tuesday’s Democratic debate. Just FYI, his thread only got a handful of retweets, so we doubt this message reached very many of his constituents. Better luck next time, Thom.
The other Super Tuesday races
Like the rest of the political world, we’re itching to see who voters pick on Tuesday – but we’ll specifically be watching the competitive Senate primaries that also occur on Super Tuesday this cycle: Alabama, North Carolina, and Texas. Without further ado, let’s take a look at how those races have played out online in the final weeks.
You don’t love the president, I do!
In a previous issue of The Senate FYI, we looked at how the Republican candidates vying to run against Doug Jones in Alabama have been trying to show their unconditional love for the president in their advertising.
This dynamic has changed in the three-man race between Jeff Sessions, Rep. Bradley Byrne, and former coach Tommy Tuberville. Roy Moore is still there, but he’s polling at 5 percent and he’s spent less than $1,000 on digital ads so far this year, so hopefully this is the last time we’ll have to mention the alleged pedophile in this newsletter. 🏻♂️
Here’s how much each of the top three candidates has spent on Facebook + Google in the past 30 days:
Tommy Tuberville: $17,257
Jeff Sessions: $14,186
Bradley Byrne: $10,188
The primary is less than a week away, but for some reason, Sessions doesn’t seem to have run any ads on those platforms since February 24. 🤔 Previously, Sessions ran Facebook ads to remind Alabamians that he was the first sitting U.S. senator to endorse Trump in 2016. But recently, he also ran Google ads that criticize Byrne and Tuberville pretty harshly.
One of Sessions’ ads attacks Byrne for being very nasty and very unfair to Mr. Trump in the past, and Sessions is accusing Tuberville of not being loyal to Alabama for the radical action of…saying that immigrants are good for the economy. 🤦♂️
How have Tuberville and Byrne responded to these sickest of burns? For the most part, Tuberville seems to be ignoring the attack. In the final weeks of the primary, the former coach seems to be focusing on fundraising off of his close polling with Sessions.
Byrne, on the other hand, has also gone on the offensive against both of his opponents. He’s attacked Tuberville for wanting “illegals” in Alabama, and he hits Sessions for being fired from his AG spot…and not jailing Hillary Clinton. 🤮
Tomfoolery in the Tar Heel State
The Democratic Senate primary in North Carolina has primarily been a two-person race. Cal Cunningham, who has a glittering resume and has been endorsed by the DSCC, holds a significant polling advantage over Erica Smith, a North Carolina state senator.
Cal Cunningham seems to already be running a general election campaign. Most recently, he’s been running acquisition ads that tout his stances on health care and climate change, some of which attack Thom Tillis and the Republican Party directly.
Smith, however, has not spent any money on Facebook or Google for this race. However, we learned earlier this month that a new Republican PAC, Faith and Power, started running digital ads on Smith’s behalf. We know now though that Faith and Power PAC is being entirely funded by the Senate Leadership Fund, the PAC closely aligned with Mitch McConnell.
With this in mind, it’s pretty clear now that this is a ploy by Republican leaders to hobble the probable Democratic nominee before the highly competitive general election begins. Smith has disavowed the ads and Cunningham has even started running ads of his own addressing the issue, but Faith and Power hasn’t stopped. The Republican PAC is still trying to paint Smith as the “only” progressive option in the primary.
It’s unclear if the Senate Leadership Fund is trying to eat at Cunningham’s base, aggravate conservatives in the state, or both, but it just goes to show that the Kremlin doesn’t need to sow chaos in our elections. Republicans are perfectly capable of doing it for them. 🙄
A fractured primary comes to a close
After a stunningly close Senate election in 2018, Democrats in Texas are about to decide who they want to run against John Cornyn after a long and unclear primary. The DSCC-endorsed MJ Hegar seems like the most likely candidate to win the nomination, but since a plurality of voters are still undecided, this race is still wide open.
Here’s how much the Democratic candidates in this primary have spent on Facebook + Google in the past 30 days (candidates not listed have spent $0 in that period):
MJ Hegar, despite her relatively low digital ad spend, seems to have a wide variety of ads on Facebook. In the final days of the campaign, her campaign has been fundraising off of two things: John Cornyn, and…her newest TV ad. Her ads were otherwise list building ads focused on health care and John Cornyn’s record on gun control and impeachment.
Tzintzún Ramirez, the Justice Democrats’ candidate of choice, has earned the endorsements of AOC, Rep. Joaquin Castro, and activist Ady Barkan – and she wants to make sure Texans know it. Some of her most recent Facebook ads are looking to fundraise off of these endorsements, and include a straight-to-camera video from Barkan. She’s also been running Spanish voter education ads, one of the only campaigns we’ve seen that’s done so in this race (surprisingly).
Amanda Edwards, a former Houston City Council member who’s explicitly angling herself as the possible first black senator from Texas, has shied away from digital advertising in recent weeks. However, her most recent ads highlighted her engagement with and connections to Texas’ black community.
Finally, State Sen. Royce West has mostly been running acquisition ads promoting his endorsements from a fellow state senator and Rep. Al Green. He hasn’t been running very many ads, but unlike most political candidates, his campaign is putting decent money behind each ad – anywhere from the typical $100 or less to as much as $8,000 on individual ads. We’re also interested to see how his video-first digital ad strategy pays out on Super Tuesday.
That’s it for this week! Have races or candidates you think we should watch? See ads or digital strategies that we should note? Send us an email! You can check out our previous issues on our website, and be sure to click below to follow us on Twitter.