Welcome to FWIW Virginia, where we analyze digital spending trends on both sides of the aisle in advance of the 2019 Virginia legislative elections. Each week, we look at whose digital spending is up, whose is down, and whose is non-existent across the Commonwealth.
For what it’s worth, some of it might surprise you.
Virginia is no stranger to elections fought around issues of women’s health, but this year it’s Republicans who are making choice a priority. So, this week we dive into how parties, campaigns, and outside groups are navigating the debate online in Virginia.
2019 by the numbers
We’re tracking digital investment by party committees, statehouse leadership and candidates in some of the top competitive state house and senate races in Virginia in advance of the 2019 state legislative elections. Here is how investment by Republicans and Democrats compare since the 2018 midterm elections.
Here is a list of top Virginia political spenders on Facebook the week of March 24-30.
A choice debate
In 2012, Governor Bob McDonnell signed a bill into law that required medical providers to administer a medically unnecessary ultrasound before performing abortions in Virginia. The ultrasound bill sparked nationwide ridicule and protests over its invasive nature, and it quickly became a leading campaign issue for Democrats for election cycles to come.
The debate over choice was a defining issue of the 2013 gubernatorial race when Terry McAuliffe put Ken Cuccinelli’s extreme anti-choice stances at the forefront of the campaign. McAuliffe spent a plurality of his advertising dollars on choice and women’s access to health care, while Cuccinelli largely avoided the issue in his paid media, according to an analysis from the Cook Political Report.
Because women voters have played a critical role in statewide and local elections in Virginia – and because Republicans across the Commonwealth have given Democrats plenty to talk about in terms of their anti-choice votes – reproductive health care has remained a driving issue in Virginia year after year. In 2019 so far, it looks like choice may once again define the Virginia elections – but this time it’s Republicans who proactively put the issue front and center. From incumbents to challengers to campaign committees, Republicans have prioritized this issue in their digital advertising – even over broad health care topics or economic security issues.
On the progressive side, pro-choice groups have begun to push back against the Republican attacks. Over the course of the last two weeks, Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia spent over $15,000 on ads that support nearly a dozen House Democrats, while NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia spent almost $1,500 on list-building ads that highlight the overwhelming popularity of women being able to make their own health care decisions.
Unsurprisingly, these ads are mostly geared towards a younger, female audience.
Progressives overall, however, have diversified their priority messaging. For example, the Virginia House Democrats’ campaign committee has spent over $10,000 on Facebook advertising since the midterms focused on Medicaid expansion and teacher raises rather than reproductive health care.
Meanwhile, House Republicans have spent nearly $15,000 on almost exclusively anti-choice Facebook ads. It’s become their defining message online. They, like Democrats, are targeting women more than men with these ads.
We tallied up Facebook spending from groups running ads specifically around the choice debate and found that liberal and conservative groups have spent roughly the same amount since January.
As we noted last week, digital ads around choice continue to focus solely on Democratic candidates rather than Republicans. In contrast to previous election cycles, when Democrats leveraged reproductive health care to define the narrative against anti-choice Republicans, it’s the GOP that’s proactively using the issue to control the message. And while pro-choice groups are fronting an impressive digital effort to push back against conservative attacks, their focus remains on protecting incumbent Democrats rather than flipping Republican-held seats to win the majority.
Historically, Democrats have made choice a critical piece of their messaging strategy in Virginia – and they’ve made significant statewide and local gains because of it. Now, it’s Republicans who are deciding to make choice an issue, and we’ll see how it plays out this fall.
If you (like us) want to do more to make sure Democrats take control of the Virginia House and Senate in 2019, reach out to us at [email protected] to learn more about what we’re planning for the 2019 state legislative elections.