politics

GOP winning the Georgia ad war as Dems shift money to ground game


Interviews with a dozen Democratic strategists and donors outlined several key reasons why Republicans have been able to build an advertising advantage. There’s fatigue among Democrats’ biggest donors after pouring millions into the 2020 general election, as well as mild skepticism that Ossoff and Warnock can actually win.

“[Donors] say, ‘I’m tired,’ they say, ‘I’m spending on ground game,’ … and lastly, they say, ‘I don’t think [Democrats] are going to win,’ even though they don’t have good data to back that up,” said one prominent super PAC official, granted anonymity to discuss the issue candidly. “The outside money’s been obscene [on the Republican side], and outside money on the Democratic side has been slow.”

Most crucially, there is growing suspicion among some Democratic donors — grounded in the party’s failure to flip control of the Senate in November — that massive TV ad campaigns don’t equal success, and money might be put to better use with organizations operating on the ground in Georgia instead of on the air.

“There’s a feeling in the donor community that too much was spent on TV and not enough on field operations,” said Ami Copeland, a Democratic strategist who served as Barack Obama’s deputy national finance director in 2008. “We had parity plus last time on TV, and it didn’t work. If donors are shifting their contributions and their support to ground operations, that at least shows a willingness to learn very quickly as to what might work and try something a little different.”

That strategic choice is showing up on the ground: Organizations focused on voter registration and mobilization, like Stacey Abrams’ Fair Fight, are swimming in record cash. The Indian American Impact Fund announced this week they’d drop $2.5 million to turn out Asian American and Pacific Islander voters through digital ads, mail and field operations. BlackPAC, Collective PAC and the New Georgia Project are all out in force with field programs in the state, even though some activists still say they could use more cash to fund their efforts in these all-important races.

“I do think there’s been a shift with Democratic donors, particularly women donors, who are far more progressive about supporting and understanding [the importance of a] ground game,” said LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, another group based in Georgia doing on-the-ground organizing. “There’s been some shift where there’s more resources on the ground, but I don’t think it’s at the level or at the scale we need.”

Indeed, even while Democrats aren’t thrilled to be outspent on TV, the disparity isn’t generating the five-alarm panic that it might have before November. Most Democrats argued a runoff puts heavier emphasis on turning out voters rather than persuading them, a reality that lends itself to door-to-door canvassing rather than to non-stop TV ads.

A Democratic donor adviser also noted that high-dollar contributors are “very reluctant to put a lot of money on traditional advertising plans” right now.

Instead, “there’s more money that’s being put into turning people out, particularly Black and brown voters, which you can do” by donating to nonprofit groups, the adviser continued, which makes those donations harder to track in public data.

Senate Majority PAC, Democrats’ main Senate-focused super PAC, has spent roughly $26 million on TV in the two races so far, according to AdImpact, on top of tens of millions spent in Georgia prior to November. The group is running ads using two newly-formed super PACs, Georgia Honor and The Georgia Way, which have also spent seven figures on digital advertising, according to FEC filings. Their ads have focused on hammering the two senators for controversial stock trades made in office.

“We all have plenty of money to compete,” said J.B. Poersch, president of Senate Majority PAC. “At the end of the day, [Republicans] have markets where they have a lot more votes than we do, but we’re being smart about talking to voters directly in Georgia and using our dollars wisely.”

The unusual circumstances of the Georgia runoffs — an 8-week sprint around the holiday, with Election Day on the second business day of 2021 — have produced a need for intense get-out-the-vote operations. Alongside the official coordinated campaign operation, Georgia-based nonprofits and other outside groups are also flooding in to educate and motivate voters. That includes extending a program run in the general election by America Votes and dozens of other progressive organizations to turn out voters of color. Majority Forward, a nonprofit aligned with Senate Majority PAC, spent more than $11 million on the program in the fall, the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported at the time.

“Independent groups are coordinating to knock over 5 million doors and have really authentic conversations that really drill down to why people should vote and how do they vote, and all those pieces,” said Leslie Small, the Georgia state director for America Votes.

On TV, the two Democratic campaigns have a major edge when it comes to reaching voters, according to AdImpact data: Ossoff has spent or reserved nearly $95 million, and Warnock has spent or reserved nearly $65 million. Perdue’s total is at $44 million while Loeffler is at nearly $48 million. All four campaigns are constantly adding to their reservations, and the full picture of their fundraising will be clear next week when they file pre-election reports with the Federal Election Commission.

But the recent advertising picture for Democrats is bleaker. In the first two weeks of December, as voter registration ended and early voting kicked off, Republicans had an overall advantage across the state and in nearly every TV market. The two parties were close to parity in Atlanta in each of the first two weeks of December, with Democrats holding a slight edge in the first week and Republicans having an advantage in the second week.

Even so, Republicans swamped Democrats in every other media market, in some cases by enormous margins, airing more than twice as much advertising as Democrats did. Republicans are likely to win rural areas and want to advertise to inspire higher turnout there, but those markets also include smaller cities where Democrats will need decisive advantages in what are expected to be extremely close races. And given the small margins in Georgia this year, each solitary vote mattered more in that state than anywhere else in the country.

“It does worry me” that Democrats are getting outspent on TV by Republicans, said Steve Phillips, founder of Democracy in Color and a Democratic donor, noting that Warnock is “not a household name in the state, so the potential for creating a caricature of who he is — that’s a real risk.”

Warnock ran positive ads without any attacks against him through the fall with Republicans focused on an intraparty competition, but he has faced a steady stream of negative hits portraying him as a radical since November. Most of the ads attack him using comments made during his sermons at his historic Atlanta church.

A Democratic counter-narrative “does need to be drilled into the consciousness of the public, and that is expensive and requires both TV and digital,” Phillips said.

Republicans have spent their millions through several organizations funded by the GOP’s biggest donors. Three super PACs run by allies of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — American Crossroads, Senate Leadership Fund, and the newly-formed Peachtree PAC, which has not yet revealed the source of its funding — have flooded the state’s airwaves. The National Republican Senatorial Committee has also made smaller buys, focused outside Atlanta.

“We are taking nothing for granted to ensure every Georgia voter understands the monumental consequences of this election,” said Steven Law, the president of Senate Leadership Fund. “Saving America by defeating socialism in Georgia will be worth every cent.”

On the Democratic side, the two Senate Majority PAC-fueled groups have been the main spenders. American Bridge, another Democratic group, has also been running ads in markets outside Atlanta focused on rural voters. And while the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has not yet begun running TV ads, it has several million dollars reserved for the final weeks of the race.

“It’s no surprise that the corporate special interests and billionaire megadonors aligned with Mitch McConnell are spending everything they can to try to rescue two reliable votes for their agenda in the Senate,” said Stewart Boss, a DSCC spokesperson.

Republicans, meanwhile, after losing the White House and failing to flip the House, are focused solely on maintaining the lever of power in the Senate, said one Democratic donor.

“Our side is broken up all over the place. Some are on the transition, some on the inauguration, so if I cut this check for Georgia, where we’re likely to lose anyway, why are we putting my money in?” the donor continued. “Less money is coming in from all sources because that’s what happens when you win the White House.”



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