With 2020 right around the corner, spending is starting increase in next year’s tightest elections. Democrats are keyed in on regaining control of the Senate and their spending patterns reflect this focus. In terms of digital spending, three of the most expensive 2020 Senate races are currently Kentucky, Arizona, and Maine. Democrats have clearly identified Republican incumbents in these seats as vulnerable. On average, Senate Democrats are outspending Republicans five to one on Facebook and Google. The digital spending disparity in Kentucky, Arizona, and Maine is even greater.
Going into 2020, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is gearing up for what appears to be a very competitive reelection campaign. Morning Consult ranks McConnell as the least popular senator in America and Democrats have identified this election as a must-win. So far, Democrats have spent $1.46M on Facebook and Google to flip this seat in their favor. Most of this spending can be attributed to Democratic challenger Amy McGrath who has spent $1.26M to this point. The Ditch Mitch Fund has added another $154k, running attack ads like the one below. Meanwhile, McConnell’s campaign doesn’t seem concerned with the Democratic spending, and has only put forward $297k so far.
In Arizona, Martha McSally has been a sitting Senator for less than a year and is already preparing to defend the seat to which she was nominated in 2019. McSally ran to replace Jeff Flake in 2018 but lost her campaign to now Senator Kyrsten Sinema. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey then appointed McSally to serve opposite her former opponent after Senator John Kyl resigned at the end of 2018. As a result of McSally’s previous loss, and Arizona’s changing alignment, Democrats have marked this as another potentially vulnerable seat. Mark Kelly appears to be the early favorite to win the Democratic Primary and has spent $778k on Facebook and Google running list building ads like the one below. Like McConnell, McSally has been slow to respond with only $73k in spending to this point.
Maine Senator Susan Collins finds herself in a McConnell-like predicament as he is the only senator more unpopular than she in the Morning Consult ratings. Sara Gideon has positioned herself as the favorite to take on Collins in the general, spending $630k on Facebook and Google in the process. Democratic issue groups have jumped on Collins’ lack of popularity, spending more than $150k targeting the Senator with ads like the one below, from Maine Momentum. In keeping with her two GOP colleagues and likely-vulnerable incumbents, Collins has been slow to respond to the mounting campaign, not even cresting $21k in spending.
These three Senate races highlight a broader trend of Democrats outspending Republicans in the tightest races in the country. At this point most candidate spending on Facebook and Google has been direct response, while issue group spending has been more evenly split between direct response and persuasion. This is important to note as direct response ads are used to help build campaign resources in preparation for a long race while persuasion ads are targeted attack ads. Campaign resources like email lists and fundraising play a large role in elections and as such digital spending can serve as an early indicator for how competitive an election will be. As these Senate elections draw closer, it will be worth watching if the digital patterns established now translate into traditional spending in 2020.
*Please note that the spending totals in this post account for spending on Facebook and Google only, and are current as of 10/24/19.