Home 2019 Elections FWIW Virginia: “Senate Primary Edition!”

FWIW Virginia: “Senate Primary Edition!”

"pre-primary finance reports show that campaigns continue to dramatically prioritize direct mail over digital advertising"

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From FWIW Virginia/ACRONYM:

Virginia’s state legislative primaries are this Tuesday (!!), so we are taking a look at how campaigns are (or aren’t) spending money online in the run up to Election Day.

Last week we highlighted the key primaries for the House of Delegates, but now we’re putting the spotlight back on the State Senate where Republicans have a narrow 21-19 majority. The last time all forty seats in the upper chamber were up for election was in 2015, and since then, several Republican-held suburban districts have shifted sharply towards Democrats.

So which senate campaigns are finally investing in digital ahead of the primary? And which are putting all their money into television ads and direct mail but aren’t spending a penny online? We break it down for you this week.

But first…

2019 by the numbers

We’re tracking digital investment by party committees, statehouse leadership, and candidates in some of the most 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 May 29 – June 4.

The Realtors PAC of Virginia has been running ads under Dick Saslaw’s Facebook page for the past two weeks – a tactic that is allowed in Virginia due to its loose campaign coordination laws. Saslaw is facing a tough primary challenge from Yasmine Taeb who is running to his left.

Days until the primary election: 5

Days until the general election: 152

Deep Dive: 🚨Senate Primary Edition!🚨
Campaigns submitted their pre-primary finance reports earlier this week, so we took a look at how campaigns have spent their money in the two months before the primary. Each race profile includes a breakdown of how much cash each campaign spent on direct mail consultants versus digital consultants, and in one case even TV consultants. If you’ve been an avid FWIW Virginia reader, you probably won’t be surprised at the disproportionate spending on TV and mail versus online advertising.

SD-07 Democratic Primary: Kim Howard vs. Cheryl Turpin vs. Susan Hippen
Virginia’s 7th state senate district encompasses swaths of Virginia Beach and Norfolk and is one of the Democrats best pick-up opportunities this year. Ralph Northam won here by nine percentage points in 2017 and Tim Kaine carried the district by a whopping fourteen last year.

In the race for the nomination, Democrats have barely spent money on Facebook (or Instagram) advertising in this district. But their finance reports show that about half of each campaign’s spending has gone towards direct mail consultants in the lead up to the primary.

Cheryl Turpin’s recent filing shows that she began to pay a digital firm early in May, but the only ad her campaign has run on Facebook is for a memorial for the victims of last Friday’s shooting in Virginia Beach. However, it is possible that her campaign is saving their digital budget for the final get out the vote days, or they may have advertised on other platforms that do not release spending data for state and local elections, like Google.

Kim Howard started to run a series of ads on Tuesday that may help boost her name recognition before the primary. Meanwhile, Susan Hippen’s campaign has yet to spend any money on digital advertising.

SD-07 Republican Primary: Jen Kiggans vs. Carolyn Weems
Incumbent Senator Frank Wagner announced his retirement earlier in the year, leaving the race for the Republican nomination wide open in the 7th senate district.

Note: Jennifer Kiggans paid Free Market Solutions $7,500 for “Campaign Services” between 4/1 and 5/30, but since there is no information about the firm online or any clear description for the expense it was left off the chart
Jen Kiggans only has one active ad running. It highlights her background as a nurse practitioner and navy pilot before calling out scandals in Richmond – without directly attacking Democrats – and includes a link to visit her campaign website. Meanwhile, Carolyn Weems has only two active ads at the moment, neither of which mention the date of the upcoming primary or include any way to further engage with her campaign, like visiting her website or signing up for emails.

SD-10 Democratic Primary: Eileen Bedell vs. Zachary Brown vs. Ghazala Hashmi
Virginia’s 10th senate district includes parts of the city of Richmond as well as Chesterfield and Powhatan Counties. The district has become increasingly Democratic in recent years – Ralph Northam won it by fifteen percentage points in 2017 compared to Terry McAuliffe’s more narrow four point margin here in 2013.This is the only senate primary we’re looking at where campaigns have invested in TV consultants. Ghazala Hashmi and Eileen Bedell have spent a huge portion of their campaign cash on television ad production and airtime.

*Eileen Bedell’s campaign is using an agency that does both digital and direct mail, and only lists the expense as “Consulting Fee” so it’s impossible to know the breakdown between mail and digital spending.
Ghazala Hashmi’s campaign is running her first television spot as an ad on Facebook. The video is smartly embedded into the post so that the viewer doesn’t have to leave the page to view it. In the ad, she outlines her story as a first generation American and working mom, and touts her NARAL endorsement at the end.
Eileen Bedell is also running her first television spot online…sort of. She links to the Youtube video in a long Facebook ad, but the viewer would have to click and open it in a new window, which is not optimal for getting voters to watch your video.
According to his finance report, Zachary Brown is placing his digital ads himself without any consultants on deck. Though in a competitive primary where name recognition can be a key factor, it may not be a smart strategy to not include your full name in your Facebook page’s title. Or to not mention the office you’re running for. Or the date of the election.
SD-12 Democratic Primary: Debra Rodman vs. Veena Lothe
Virginia’s 12th state senate district consists of a huge number of voters from Henrico County with a smaller portion living in Hanover County. This is another district that has gotten bluer with time. In 2013, Terry McAuliffe lost the 12th senate district by eight percentage points, while Ralph Northam won it by five points in 2017.
Debra Rodman – an incumbent delegate who opted to run for state senate rather than seek reelection – has put far more money into digital advertising recently than most other Democratic campaigns. Though they don’t link to her website or run a video, her ads highlight the day of the primary, mention the office she’s seeking, and give Democrats a reason to turnout for her by highlighting her record on gun safety, Medicaid expansion, and reproductive health care.
Veena Lothe’s recent filing shows that she hasn’t spent any money on consultants over the last two months. However, Lothe’s campaign manager appears to be creating the campaign’s Facebook ads in-house, which is more cost-effective than hiring a digital agency.
SD-13 Republican Primary: Geary Higgins vs. Ron Meyer
Virginia’s 13th senate district rests in Loudoun and Prince William Counties – part of Northern Virginia. With incumbent Republican Senator Dick Black’s recently announced retirement, Democrats are well-positioned to flip this district blue. Northam won here by eleven percentage points in 2017 while Tim Kaine took it by eighteen points last year.But that doesn’t mean Republicans aren’t going to make a run for it. Geary Higgins and Ron Meyer are duking it out for the nomination, and both have spent significant amounts of money leading up to the primary.

Geary Higgins’ digital program has significantly ramped up in recent weeks – he spent $2,462 in the last week alone – and by the looks of his digital consultant spend, there are still plenty of online ads to come. He is running to the right of Ron Meyer in the primary and has bravely staked out the position of being “pro-Virginia.”
Ron Meyer’s campaign appears to be placing Facebook ads without an agency and has twenty active ads running at the moment. His campaign has zeroed in on local transportation and traffic issues.
But Meyer has also addressed being called a RINO (Republican in name only) by Virginia conservatives in a few of his digital ads. In an increasingly blue district, party infighting that pulls candidates further to the right could doom the GOP’s chances of holding onto this seat.
Some Final Thoughts
The pre-primary finance reports show that campaigns continue to dramatically prioritize direct mail over digital advertising. That’s fine if campaigns are only attempting to reach the tiny segment of voters who check (and actually read) their mail every day, but increasingly, campaigns need to reach voters where they spend their time – online. Digital ads in down-ballot races such as these can be a much cheaper and more effective way to reach a wider audience. And a well-produced digital ad can have a far greater impact than even the slickest piece of mail, because digital offers far more opportunities for voters and supporters to share and engage with the content itself.
Thanks for reading and make sure to sign up for weekly updatesfollow us on Twitter and email us with ideas of what you’d like us to dive into next.- The team at ACRONYM

P.S. Here’s a sign-up link for our national FWIW newsletter and you can find today’s issue here.