Outside money targets delegate races

Emerging American Majorities, Freedom Virginia, and Americans for Prosperity spending online

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. 

Although the 2021 general election is expected to smash campaign finance records at the statewide and delegate levels, the digital battleground has been mostly quiet (with a few exceptions) as candidates focus on raising money and reaching out to voters through other modes. However, with an opportunity to help candidates build name ID + define themselves early while digital ad space is relatively affordable, outside groups are rushing in to fill the digital ad spending gap, especially in some of the state’s highly competitive delegate races.

How are outside groups reaching out to voters on behalf of candidates? And who’s benefiting from outside money? We take a look in this week’s edition of FWIW Virginia.

But first...

2021 by the Numbers

FWIW, here are the top 10 spenders on Facebook in Virginia last week.

And here’s how digital ad spending stacked up this week in Virginia’s statewide races.

We’re also tracking cumulative digital ad spending across the state, including spending from candidates for statewide offices, competitive or potentially competitive delegate races (any race under a 15 point margin in 2019), and partisan outside groups with spending specifically targeted at Virginia elections.

Democrats’ digital ad spending advantage continues to be driven by the top of the ticket, with McAuliffe’s campaign consistently increasing their spending on Facebook and Google ads week over week while Youngkin’s campaign hasn’t spent on either platform since mid-June. 

Notably, McAuliffe’s campaign recently launched a new Facebook page called “The Download VA,” which his team is using to run ads boosting favorable news articles to voters’ Facebook feeds. The tactic of “boosting” news on Facebook has become a new best practice in campaigns, tested by ACRONYM in 2018 and deployed by dozens of campaigns since. 

While there isn’t much spending directly from delegate candidates yet, there have been a number of outside groups filling the gap, particularly from Democratic-aligned organizations, that have contributed to this spending advantage as well.

Outside $ in delegate races

This early in the general election, it’s not surprising that we haven’t seen much digital ad spending from delegate campaigns - most candidates + their relatively small staffs have been hunkering down to build warchests for an expensive general election: 

We have seen some digital ad spending on the Republican side, including race-baiting ads on Critical Race Theory from Tim Anderson, the GOP nominee in HD 83, and ads featuring blatant vaccine misinformation from Del. Dave LaRock (HD 33). The early spending we’ve seen is just a drop in the bucket compared to the enormous budgets a few of these races will have by Election Day, but some outside organizations are already rushing to fill the digital spending gap left by delegate campaigns.

Emerging American Majorities has been the biggest outside spender on digital ads so far, spending just over $40,000 on Facebook and $14,000 on Snapchat since the June 8th primary. The organization is using its early money to boost incumbent Democratic delegates, touting their votes to invest in job training programs. So far, it appears they’ve run ads supporting Dels. Wendy Gooditis (HD 10), Chris Hurst (HD 12), Dan Helmer (HD 40), and Nancy Guy (HD 83).

This week, we picked up ad spending on Facebook from Freedom Virginia, with the group breaking into the state’s top 10 weekly spenders for the first time this week. Between June 28th and July 4th, the group spent $8,397 on Facebook ads supporting Democratic Dels. Wendy Gooditis (HD 10), Joshua Cole (HD 28), Roslyn Tyler (HD 75), and Charniele Herring (HD 46). The group also has an ad up attacking GOP Del. Barry Knight (HD 81). The ads focus on prescription drug costs and rising energy costs before tying the Democratic incumbent to the issues with a positive framing.

While almost all of these ads are focused on highly competitive races, the inclusion of Herring is interesting since her seat is safely Democratic + she faces no Republican opponent in the general election.

Meanwhile, on the Republican side, there doesn’t appear to be the same degree of coordination when it comes to early digital spending on behalf of their delegate candidates. So far, the biggest outside spender on behalf of GOP delegate candidates is Americans for Prosperity, the Koch-funded group that spends millions of dollars on behalf of conservative causes across the country. 

While the national organization spends money on nationally targeted ads that reach some voters in Virginia, the organization’s Virginia-focused digital spending comes from its “Americans for Prosperity - Virginia” page, which has spent just under $15,000 since the June 8th primary on static ads focused on building name ID for GOP delegate candidates in competitive races, along with some spending focused on attacking Reps. Spanberger and Luria for supporting bills that would lower prescription drug costs.

We haven’t picked up any other significant GOP-aligned outside groups spending on digital ads, but there has been some limited spending from the RGA’s Right Direction PAC, which ran ads appearing to recruit Virginia Republicans to volunteer for Youngkin’s campaign.

Overall, the early money we’re seeing so far in Virginia is just a small amount compared to the millions that will flood into the state in the coming months. But for delegate candidates, early digital spending could be highly valuable by building name recognition + defining them on positive terms while the candidates themselves hunker down to raise the money they’ll need to be competitive down the stretch.

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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