There are three and a half weeks until Virginians go to the polls, and things aren’t looking good for the Virginia GOP. Recent generic ballot polls that ask respondents whether they would rather have Republicans or Democrats in charge of the Virginia legislature have Democrats consistently up from 7 to 13 percentage points (we’re skeptical of the poll showing Democrats up 13, but we hope we’re wrong) over Republicans.
Democrats are outspending Republicans on TV ads in every competitive State Senate race we’re watching, often by huge margins, and the GOP is being swamped on digital platforms across the state by a combination of campaign and outside organizational spending.
What are the biggest Democratic advantages going into the final weeks of the election? And where are the Republican reinforcements? We take a look in this week’s edition of FWIW Virginia.
2019 by the numbers
Here’s how Facebook spending by Republican and Democratic party committees and candidates in the most competitive districts compare since the primary election.
Here are the top ten biggest Facebook spenders in Virginia from September 29 – October 5:
*Everytown for Gun Safety is running Virginia-specific ads from its national page. Because Facebook reports a spending range on individual ads, this number is an approximation of their weekly spend based on the spending range for their individual, Virginia-specific ads.
Days left until the general election: 26
State of Play: Are Republicans left for dead?
Democrats only need to flip two seats in both the House of Delegates and the State Senate each to complete a trifecta in Virginia, leaving Republicans with almost no margin for error. Before the elections even started in earnest, a court-ordered redistricting plan redrew large parts of the Virginia electoral map and sent six Republicans into toss-up or heavily Democratic districts.
On top of a new, less favorable map and a Democratic-leaning political environment, GOP Delegate Nick Freitas (HD-30) forgot to file his paperwork on time, forcing him to run a write-in campaign and sending a normally safe Republican district into unknown territory. His campaign is dramatically outraising and outspending Democratic candidate Sally Ridgeway thanks to a $500,000 check from Republican mega-donor Richard Uihlein, but write-in campaigns are always volatile.
Party Committees + Campaigns
With the playing field tilted against them, Republicans have to run strong campaigns, but by most conventional measurements they’re still falling behind Democrats. As noted earlier, Democrats are outspending Republicans on TV in competitive State Senate races. Democratic candidates are also outraising Republican candidates, and despite Republican operatives trying to spin their fundraising failures as Democratic reliance on out-of-state donors, both Democrats and Republicans have received the same proportion of funds from Virginia donors.
Democrats are also dramatically outspending Republicans on digital, thanks to an organizational emphasis at the party and campaign levels on reaching voters where they’re at: online.
As seen at the top of the newsletter every week, our count of spending just from campaigns and party committees (in other words, before any outside spending) has Democrats with a $82,000 spending advantage – that gap opened up in mid-August and has widened nearly every week since.
There are a handful of districts on the House and Senate side where the Republican candidates are outspending their Democratic opponents on Facebook, but the real Democratic digital spending advantage is coming from the Virginia Democratic Party’s coordinated digital campaign, which is running persuasion, name ID, and mobilization advertisements on behalf of Democratic candidates. By our count, the party has spent just under $86,000 through their “Take the Majority 2019” brand since August. As far as we can tell, Republicans have no equivalent coordinated digital effort to counter Democrats.
In the past week alone, Democratic campaigns and committees outspent their Republican counterparts by $16,000, a disparity that has real consequences. With their digital spending advantage, Democrats can reach more swing voters more often than their opponents.
Republicans are outgunned at nearly every turn – it would make sense if the national Republican Party and other Republican-aligned groups were stepping up to stop a Democratic trifecta, but as far as we can tell, there isn’t much evidence of reinforcements.
When it comes to national organizations, it appears that Democratic groups are the ones doubling down to take control of Virginia. On Monday, Emily’s List announced an additional $1.5 million investment in the Virginia legislative elections on top of their earlier $600,000 investment, and groups like Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund and NextGen America have been running persuasion and mobilization programs in competitive districts.
Virginia-based groups are also much more prevalent on the Democratic side. As we’ve noted in previous editions of FWIW Virginia, progressive groups like Progress Virginia and Family Friendly Economy have been huge spenders in Virginia, conducting long-term persuasion around progressive economic issues.
Progress Virginia has spent over $180,000 on Facebook ads in 2019 (making them the top Facebook spender in the Virginia elections to date), starting with early persuasion and message testing and now moving towards direct candidate promotions through localized pages like Speak Up Richmond and Our NOVA.
Other Democratic-aligned groups like the Virginia League of Conservation Voters and Planned Parenthood Advocates for Virginia have continued to spend on Facebook, although at much lower levels than Progress Virginia, at least through their own pages. In recent weeks, we’ve also seen a variety of new, smaller Democratic-aligned organizations pop up on the Facebook Ad Library spending money in Virginia.
As far as we’ve seen, there’s almost no Republican equivalent to any of the outside digital spending we’ve seen on the Democratic side. It’s possible that there’s a group we haven’t spotted (if you’ve noticed something we haven’t, shoot us an email and we’ll take a look), but the largest Republican-aligned outside spending group we’ve seen is Americans for Prosperity Virginia, which has spent about $15,000 on Facebook since the primary – that’s just 1/10th of Progress Virginia’s post-primary spend alone.
With all of that said, Democrats have reason to feel good about their efforts so far but no reason to feel complacent. Twenty-six days is a long time in politics and a lot can change. But if Democratic campaigns and organizations keep their foot on the pedal and Democrats across the state step up to get every last Democrat out to vote, Democrats should be able to complete a trifecta for the first time since 1993.