Welcome to FWIW Virginia, where we analyze digital spending trends on both sides of the aisle in the 2021 Virginia statewide and legislative elections. Each week, we look at how campaigns are investing in digital engagement and the online tactics they use to reach voters across the Commonwealth. Was this email forwarded to you? Click here to subscribe.
The Democratic primary is officially over, and around 485,000 Virginia Democrats went to the polls to select the party’s statewide slate + nominees for House of Delegates. Despite pundits suggesting Virginia Democrats lacked enthusiasm to vote, Tuesday’s election saw some of the highest turnout in recent history. The statewide races were mostly unsurprising, with Terry McAuliffe and Mark Herring winning their nominations for Governor and Attorney General, while Hala Ayala recovered from a tough final week to win the nomination for Lt. Governor. There were, however, some surprising and not-so-surprising results in the House of Delegates primaries, with a number of incumbents getting the boot..
How did the candidates for statewide and delegate races prioritize digital advertising in the final weeks of the campaign? We take a look in this week’s edition of #FWIWVA.
2021 by the Numbers
Now that the primaries have wrapped, we’ll be publishing cumulative and weekly spending data in competitive elections for the House of Delegates and statewide offices.
FWIW, here are the top 10 spenders on Facebook in Virginia last week.
While most top spenders were laser-focused on spending related to the Democratic primary, the Democratic Governors Assocation is already seeking to persuade voters for the general election, running these anti-Youngkin static and video ads to voters across Virginia:
The Statewide Races
Here’s how digital spending stacked up in the statewide races in the final week of the primary:
The primary for #VAGov was uneventful, with former Gov. Terry McAuliffe easily dispatching more progressive candidates en route to taking over 62% of the vote - an impressive showing in a 5-way field. His campaign outraised + outspent the field across every channel, including online.
In the race for #VALG, there was a small upset on Tuesday night when Del. Hala Ayala came back from a very tough final week of the campaign to take the nomination by running up the score in the vote-rich eastern half of the state.
Del. Sam Rasoul raised the most money in the field and outspent the entire field combined on digital, but consolidating support in his home region of southwest Virginia just wasn’t enough to win the nomination. Ayala’s candidacy is historic - if elected in November, she’ll be the first woman of color to hold statewide office in the Commonwealth.
Sam Rasoul had a dominant lead in digital spending throughout the race, but underdogs Sean Perryman and Andria McClellan ramped up their spending in the closing weeks as they attempted to make a late surge among voters tuning in at the last minute. It wasn’t enough, however, with McClellan failing to consolidate support in her home turf in Hampton Roads (Ayala won those counties easily) and Perryman barely breaking 10% in Fairfax County, where he leads the county’s NAACP chapter. As we’ve noted before - Ayala spent practically nothing on digital advertising, and still won handily. Online ads matter, but clearly so do so many other tactics - from TV, to radio, direct mail, major endorsements, and good ol’ shoe-leather campaigning.
The race for AG came down to the wire, with two-term incumbent Mark Herring facing a strong challenge from Del. Jay Jones. Herring ultimately came through with 56.6% of the vote, running up the score in vote-rich NoVa with the help of the Washington Post endorsement, and consolidating support in Southwest Virginia.
The different digital ad spending trends from the two campaigns tell a clear story of the race, with Jones spending earlier and more consistently than Herring as he raced to introduce himself to voters throughout the state. Meanwhile, Herring’s digital operation didn’t ramp up until the closing weeks of the campaign, fueled by a late infusion of cash by the Democratic Attorneys General Association, as he targeted voters tuning into the race late in the primary.
Ultimately, Herring did enough to win renomination, but Jones posted a strong statewide performance and will return to the House of Delegates after winning his Delegate primary on Tuesday - he has a clear path to statewide office should he choose to run again in several years.
In the House
Democratic incumbents across the state faced primary challenges, and while most challengers came far short of dispatching the entrenched incumbents, a handful of incumbents found themselves in hot water after drawing stronger than average opponents or double-filing for their Delegate seat and a statewide office.
In HD2, incumbent Delegate Candi King posted a strong performance against challenger Pam Montgomery. King had a small incumbency advantage after winning a special election in January when Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy resigned her seat to run for Governor, but she was heavily outraised by Pam Montgomery, who was bankrolled over $330,000 from Clean Virginia and its related PAC.
Del. Ibraheem Samirah didn’t fare as well in his primary, as he narrowly lost to political newcomer Irene Shin. Samirah slightly outspent Shin on digital ads, but overall, Shin outraised Samirah by over $100,000 and picked up a number of local endorsements, giving her just enough to defeat the one-term incumbent. Shin was also the only candidate for delegate or statewide office to run Snapchat advertising supporting her candidacy. 🏆
Other incumbents got themselves into trouble after double-filing for the Delegate seat and a statewide office. Dels. Elizabeth Guzman and Mark Levine both ran doomed bids for Lt. Gov, but Guzman made the decision to drop out of the race in April to focus on her re-election. That decision worked out, as she handily defeated her main challenger, Rod Hall, who initially filed for the seat when it appeared Guzman was committed to her statewide bid.
On the other hand, Levine refused to back down from his bid for Lt. Gov, cutting his campaign a $530,000 check in the closing weeks to fund a statewide TV ad buy. Despite the cash infusion to his campaign, he finished with just over 11% statewide in the Lt. Gov race and was defeated on his home turf by Alexandria Vice Mayor Elizabeth Bennett-Parker. On paper, it appears Levine outspent Bennett-Parker on digital ads, but it appears that almost all of his spending was focused on his statewide bid, so he was likely outspent within his own district.
Finally, socialist Twitter meme-king Del. Lee Carter went down in his district after running a doomed bid for Governor - he finished last place in the Governor’s race with less than 3% of the vote and also lost renomination for his Delegate seat after spending a grand total of $0 on digital ads for either of his races. On the bright side, Carter seems genuinely at peace with the outcome and it seems like he’s more than ready to embrace his post-Delegate life.
On to the general election!
Thanks for reading this week’s FWIW Virginia! We’re so excited to be back following these critical elections in the Commonwealth. If you enjoy reading this type of content each week, we hope you’ll support our work by clicking share and tweeting out this newsletter below! As always, email us with ideas of what you’d like us to dive into next.
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