Trump looms large over Virginia
Also inside: McAuliffe takes advantage of Youngkin’s debate refusal, challenges Trump
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 2020 election was held over 8 months ago, but former President Donald Trump is more relevant than ever in Virginia’s 2021 statewide elections. With the former president still demanding loyalty from Republicans across the country, GOP gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin is facing the awkward situation of having to embrace Trump and his supporters while also trying to reach out to the swing voters repulsed by Trump + his far-right politics.
How are Virginia Republicans walking the tightrope between embracing Trump and persuading swing voters? And how is McAuliffe’s campaign taking advantage of this tricky position for the VA GOP? We take a look in this week’s edition of FWIW Virginia.
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.
As you can tell, we’re pretty much in the doldrums of campaign ad spending, and don’t anticipate that to change for at least another month. The exception is the McAuliffe campaign, which continues to rally national Democrats to support his candidacy, using Youngkin as a fundraising tool.
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.
Trump Looms Large
Despite losing Virginia by over 10% in the 2020 Presidential election, former President Donald Trump still casts a long shadow over the state’s 2021 elections. Whether or not the former President’s supporters are energized and turn out this fall is an open question - and one that will decide the fate of Republican candidates across the commonwealth.
In the primary, GOP gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin ran far to the right to secure his party’s nomination. In the run up to the convention, Youngkin parroted Trump’s lies about voter fraud and “election integrity,” and appealed to similar racial grievances when he went on Tucker Carlson to racebait over Critical Race Theory, an appearance he then amplified using Facebook ads.
Youngkin’s loyalty to the former President earned him a “Complete and Total Endorsement” immediately after his convention victory - the timing of the endorsement, which appeared to be a surprise, complicated Youngkin’s pivot to the middle, as he attempts to define himself as a pro-business moderate Republican that can appeal to the suburban Virginia voters that have abandoned the GOP in droves in the Trump-era.
Youngkin faces the same awkward problem as 2017 GOP nominee Ed Gillespie faced in needing to turn out the far-right GOP base with Trump-like appeals while also winning over the state’s growing affluent, college-educated voting bloc. Trump, very helpfully, reminded Youngkin of this dilemma in a press release this Monday:
The statement, while nominally supporting Youngkin, also seems to be a warning shot against running towards the middle, instead encouraging his campaign to fully embrace Trump’s far-right MAGA politics. 😂
Curiously, Youngkin’s campaign is awkwardly trying to tie McAuliffe to Trump, releasing an ad highlighting a previous donation from Trump to McAuliffe during his 2009 run for Governor. Youngkin also boosted the ad on Facebook from July 12-14, his campaign’s first time spending on the platform in nearly a month and the first time his campaign has mentioned Trump in a digital ad since the GOP convention. It’ll be interesting to see whether or not Trump disapproves of Youngkin’s tactics of attacking his opponent for… being friendly with Trump.
McAuliffe, on the other hand, has a far less awkward message when it comes to dealing with Trump: Trump is bad and Glenn Youngkin is a Trump Republican. For nearly the entire campaign, McAuliffe has run Facebook ads using Trump’s endorsement to acquire emails and donors, and with their fundraising tactics staying consistent, it’s likely that they’re seeing good returns on their investment.
McAuliffe’s campaign is also racing to tie Youngkin to Trump in their persuasion-focused advertising, releasing a digital ad titled “Honored,” which features Youngkin touting his endorsement from Trump. Of the $30,800 McAuliffe spent on Google in the past week, this ad appears to be the bulk of their spending along with a 15-second positive spot featuring the former Governor’s economic achievements.
Trying to take advantage of Trump’s interest in the Virginia election, McAuliffe’s team has also taken to baiting Trump on Twitter. Most recently, with Youngkin’s refusal to participate in the long-standing Virginia Bar Association debate, McAuliffe issued a challenge for Trump to debate in Youngkin’s place. It’s certainly a long-shot, but baiting Trump into more public statements about the race is almost certainly a net positive for McAuliffe.
It’s no secret that Republicans face an uphill battle in assembling a winning statewide coalition - having to balance their far-right base while appealing to swing voters is a tough task in any environment, and having Trump sporadically intervening doesn’t make it any easier. Youngkin’s team seems to think they’ll be able to walk the tightrope, but only time will tell if they can turn out their base without scaring off the moderate voters they’ll need to win in November.
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