Small-dollar online fundraising is a “feature” of Martha McSally’s finance strategy — the Arizona senator spent $349,000 on digital advertising in the first quarter. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Republicans want to raise more digital dollars in the future after Democrats’ success, but few 2020 Senate campaigns are investing early.
By JAMES ARKIN
04/27/2019 06:40 AM EDT
The GOP has vowed to work harder to appeal to small-dollar donors after getting hit by a “green wave” of Democratic online cash in 2018. But some of the most vulnerable Republican senators up for reelection in 2020 are off to a slow start.
Only two of the six most endangered Republican senators topped six figures in digital spending in the first quarter, according to a POLITICO review of campaign finance records, while every vulnerable Democrat and two challengers cleared that mark. On average, the GOP senators were outspent on Facebook ads prospecting for supporters, data from the social media network shows. And every vulnerable Democratic incumbent raised more small-dollar money in the first three months of the 2020 election cycle.Story Continued Below
The figures prompted concern from some Republican digital strategists focused on improving a major weakness in the party. Congressional Democrats raised over $700 million online in the 2018 elections, fueling the Democratic House takeover and prompting top GOP officials to create a new platform to harness small-dollar donations. But the onus is also on individual campaigns to build the big email lists and social media followings that can later generate online cash.
Eric Wilson, a veteran GOP digital strategist who worked for Sen. Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign and Ed Gillespie’s campaign for governor of Virginia in 2017, said GOP senators should be taking advantage of their incumbency to start building online infrastructure early.
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“I would say if we see similar levels over the next couple of quarters, it would be a concern,” Wilson said of the early spending.
“We just know that the Democrats, through their online fundraising culture, are going to be able to bring millions of dollars out of nowhere at very short notice,” Wilson added. “Republicans can’t muster that. We have to take time to build these lists.”
Sens. Cory Gardner of Colorado and Thom Tillis of North Carolina, two of the most vulnerable Republicans on the ballot this year, each spent only about $35,000 on digital in the first quarter, a small fraction of their total early campaign spending. Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa spent a similar amount, though she raised more in small-dollar donations than most of her colleagues. Sen. David Perdue of Georgia spent about $43,000, including slightly more investment in digital-specific consulting.
By contrast, Democratic Sens. Doug Jones of Alabama, Gary Peters of Michigan and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire all spent six figures on their digital operations in the first three months of 2019. Shaheen’s $153,000 digital outlay comprised almost 40 percent of her first-quarter spending. Only two endangered Republicans approached that level: Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Martha McSally of Arizona, who spent about $120,000 and $349,000, respectively, on digital.
Jeff Roe, McSally’s campaign consultant, said small-dollar digital fundraising is a “feature” of her finance strategy, adding that McSally’s resume and her campaign’s focus on the subject has given her “an opportunity to raise a lot of money” online.
“Small-dollar donors will be essential to match the fundraising on the left,” Roe said. “It’s not a desire, it’s a requirement.”
Tim Cameron, a veteran GOP digital operative, said Democrats have some baked-in advantages, including being the party out of power, which fuels donor energy. But he said Republican incumbents need to be outspending their opponents on digital or investing significantly this year even before they have challengers.
“This could just be Republican campaigns keeping their powder dry for future opportunities. But this isn’t something campaigns can afford to have happening a year from now,” Cameron said. “Campaigns still suffering from a digital spending deficit will probably regret not making earlier investments.”
Some Republican strategists aren’t concerned about the early digital spending, and said investments in digital fundraising may not be fully reflected in the first-quarter FEC reports from campaigns. For example, some consulting work done in late March, as the first-quarter deadline approached, may not be reflected in the early reports, they argued. And strategists working on Senate races said a clearer picture of the GOP’s investment in closing the online fundraising gap would be possible in July.
“We’ve seen a higher level interest than we’ve ever seen before,” said one veteran GOP strategist who has worked with Senate campaigns. “It’s too early to tell whether that translates into actual spending, but so far from a budgeting and commitment standpoint, it’s been more so than we’ve ever seen before.”
In some instances, Republicans are using specific events to boost their digital profiles. Ernst announced this week her annual “Roast and Ride” political event in June, and she is running a host of Facebook ads asking for email signups. Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.), who is running in the GOP primary to face Jones, outspent most incumbent senators on Facebook, with many of his ads promoting his Fox News appearances or linking him with President Donald Trump.
Collins, who raised only $15,000 in small-dollar donations so far this year, invested more than almost every other Republican incumbent on digital fundraising. She raised more than $600,000 in the final three months last year, much of it due to her high-profile decision to support Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
One former campaign manager for a Republican senator said it’s hard to glean the full picture of a campaign’s digital investment from the first-quarter spending. But online fundraising does not come as easily for Republicans as Democrats, and time is of the essence in laying the groundwork to raise more money down the road.
“You cannot do this in 2020 and if you don’t start now, you’re behind the curve,” the former manager said.
There were some signs of success for the GOP. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has heavily outspent the National Republican Senatorial Committee on Facebook ads so far this cycle, but the Republican committee raised more in small-dollar donations, fueling a better overall fundraising quarter.
Jesse Hunt, a spokesman for the NRSC, said they are confident GOP campaigns are taking digital fundraising seriously.
Some Republicans are using specific events to boost their digital profiles, like Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, who raised more in small-dollar donations than most of her colleagues. | Charlie Neibergall/AP Photo
“Republicans running in 2020 understand the important role digital plays in a successful campaign and will have the necessary resources to execute an effective strategy,” Hunt said.
But Democrats think that the early 2020 spending shows their party will maintain its advantage when it comes to small-dollar fundraising. In the first quarter of this year, all three vulnerable Democratic incumbents raised at least $190,000 in donations of less than $200, which typically cover most online donations, according to FEC reports.
Meanwhile, only two vulnerable Republicans, Ernst and McSally, raised six figures in small dollar donations — though Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is up for a seventh term in deep red Kentucky next year, pulled in nearly $185,000.
Several Democratic digital strategists said it was noteworthy to see some Republican senators spending so little on digital.
“Seeing those really low numbers on the Republican side shows that they’re not terribly concerned about digital,” said Taryn Rosenkranz, a veteran Democratic digital consultant. “You would think the GOP is trying to play catch-up, so I’m surprised they’re not overly investing.”
And there are already tangible signs that Democratic online fundraising is going to have a big effect on the battle for the Senate in 2020.
Arizona Democrat Mark Kelly, the former astronaut and husband of former Rep. Gabby Giffords, who was shot while in office, raised more than $1.5 million in contributions of $200 or less in the first quarter, doubling every other senator or challenger. He raised $4 million total for the quarter, a massive early sum. Kelly’s campaign also invested heavily, spending more than $500,000 on digital fundraising expenses, about 60 percent of his campaign’s total spending, according to his FEC report.
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