This November, voters in Virginia will head to the polls in competitive legislative elections that could hand Republicans total control of state government for the first time in years.
In previous off-year races (2017, 2019, and 2021) Democrats invested heavily in online campaign tactics, and a flood of DC-based progressive organizations and activists descended on the state to knock doors and reach voters. But this year, Republicans have been buoyed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s political operation and have gone on offense to win back majorities in the House of Delegates and State Senate.
It’s unclear how many national Democrats have come to terms with the stakes of these elections: if Republicans sweep across the board and reclaim a trifecta in state government, the once moderately blue commonwealth could take a hard Right turn for several years to come.
FWIW, here’s a look at political ad spending on Facebook and Instagram in the state over the past month:
As you can see, Republicans and their allied groups are outpacing Democratic spending on these platforms – which should set off a few alarm bells on the Left. The top spender in recent weeks has been the Republican Party of Virginia, which is running ads asking Republicans to “secure their vote” by requesting absentee ballots. They’re also up with bilingual ads touting Youngkin’s economic agenda.
The Republican establishment in the state is also getting a boost from the Koch Brothers’ network. Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity is aggressively promoting several Republican candidates running in the most competitive districts.
Much of Democrats’ digital ad support on Facebook and Instagram comes from Freedom Virginia, a progressive outside group. That organization’s ads shore up specific candidates and cite Democrats’ policies with poll-tested messaging like giving “Virginians the tools they need to thrive.”
Meanwhile, on Google & YouTube, spending has heavily favored Democrats:
The top political advertiser in the state on Google and YouTube has been the House Democratic Caucus, which is very wisely running YouTube ads targeting GOP candidates and tying them to a potential statewide abortion ban. Here’s an example:
At the same time, the House Republican Campaign Committee isn’t exactly staying away from the abortion issue – they are running Search and video ads accusing Democratic candidates of supporting “elective abortion until the time of birth.”
One thing we should note: even though it’s the year of our lord 2023, all of this digital ad spending remains a drop in the bucket compared to the millions spent on old-school tactics like television, radio, and direct mail.
Recent polls have shown that Virginians are evenly split on which party they favor to control the House and Senate, and investments in mobilization in the campaign’s final weeks could make the difference. The Washington Post reported this week that President Biden has personally made sure that the Democratic National Committee is increasing its investment in the state’s elections – to the tune of $1.5 million.