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This Week in Statehouse Action: Datalore edition
Welcome, dear reader, to a momentous event.
This is not an assertion I make casually.
You are about to become a part of the most ambitious crossover event of all time.
Thanks for reading This Week in Statehouse Action! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Avengers: Endgame? Pfft, child’s play.
James Doohan’s Scotty appearing on Star Trek: The Next Generation? Old news.
ALF x Gilligan’s Island? Yes, somehow even bigger than that.
Obviously, this is far from the only political newsletter out there, though I do dominate the statehouse niche I settled into almost a full decade ago (no foolin’, the very first edition–email only–went out on 10/10/12), and maybe we’ll take a little walk down memory lane next week, but for right now, let’s focus on the present.
Because I got such a cool present this week!
But first, a little background:
When it comes to newsletters. I’m not only a writer, I’m a subscriber, though I’m notoriously circumspect about inviting additional traffic into my inbox.
Free or paid, I don’t find that many newsletters worth my time.
So I’m super pleased to introduce you to one that very much is!
FWIW launched in 2018 and gives its readers an incredibly valuable peek behind the curtain of political digital spending via a weekly newsletter that breaks down related money, tactics, and trends in elections at every level of the ballot.
I mean, in an era where more and more traditional paid media (TV especially) is being rendered obsolete, it’s super helpful to know whose digital spending is up, down, or non-existent, yeah?
And credit where it’s most definitely due: Kyle Tharp did the heavy lifting on the cool data below, and if you like it, you should show him some love, because I think he’s basically magic but he shouldn’t have to take just my word for it.
You can check out the full edition of this week’s FWIW here.
As an erudite consumer of this missive, you’re already aware of the outsized impact state legislatures have on literally every aspect of our lives–which is why the thousands of state legislative seats on the ballot on Nov. 8 are incredibly important.
But real power in legislative chambers is determined by majority control, and only a handful of states this year are home to contests that could drastically shift the balance of that power.
While they’re not the only legislatures both parties are targeting, Michigan, Nevada, Arizona, and Pennsylvania are absolutely among the top states where majority party control could flip this year.
Democrats are playing offense in all but one (Nevada).
And yet, even with meaningful opportunities to win real power in these crucial states with issues like reproductive freedom, education, and democracy itself literally on the line, these crucial races are (... remain) chronically underfunded by the left.
Advertising (and having the money to spend on it) in state legislative races is especially important because these candidates often suffer from low name ID, and many voters just don’t know who’s running for what.
But! Despite a history of overall underinvestment in these types of races, combined TV and digital spending on state legislative elections in 2022 has already passed $130 million.
and I know you’ll be just SHOCKED to learn that Republicans have spent significantly more than Democrats.
Just looking at digital ads, however, Democrats are faring a little better.
To provide a decent baseline for comparison, 2021’s off-year election in Virginia saw a little over $1 million in Facebook and Google ad spending for legislative races.
In at least one key state this cycle, digital paid media investment has already blown past those numbers.
Let’s dig in:
For the first time in over a decade, Democrats have a fair shot at flipping one or both chambers of the GOP-controlled Michigan legislature (thanks entirely to a successful citizen-initiated ballot measure in 2018 that created an independent redistricting commission).
Democrats need to flip just two House seats (of 110) to take control of that chamber, and flipping four state Senate seats (of 38) would give Dems a majority there.
In addition to being one of the rare states without GOP-gerrymandered maps, the political landscape in Michigan is colored by an intense statewide focus on another ballot measure: Proposal 3, which would enshrine reproductive freedom in the state constitution.
These factors, in addition to three Democratic incumbents running for reelection statewide at the top of the ballot, have created a unique opportunity for team blue this year.
And maybe, just maybe .. Democrats are making good use of it?
Out of all the states that have competitive legislative elections this year, Democrats and their allies seem to be running their most sophisticated digital operation in Michigan.
Candidates, the state party, and outside groups all are hammering Republicans across the state with abortion-related advertising.
Over the past 90 days, the top spender on political Facebook ads in Michigan was not Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s campaign or some large national advocacy group.
Rather, it was a relatively obscure progressive digital political outfit called the Main Street Sentinel. The liberal site, somehow affiliated with a progressive Facebook network called Real Voices Media, has spent over $700,000 on ads supporting Democrats running for the state legislature and other offices.
The state party has spent a huge amount of money on these types of ads, too.
In the past 90 days, the Michigan Democratic State Central Committee has spent over $425,000 via a “Michigan Families First” Facebook page and another $95,000 on YouTube to attack down-ballot Republicans and boost the Dem state legislative slate.
In addition to those two top advertisers, Prosperity Michigan and Prosperity Michigan Action Fund have spent over $200,000 on recent Facebook ads boosting state legislative Democrats (in addition to supporting Whitmer), and Forward Majority Action Michigan has also launched new Facebook ad campaigns attacking Republican down-ballot candidates.
Conservatives in Michigan haven’t allowed these ads to go completely unanswered.
The Koch-brothers backed Americans for Prosperity and Americans for Prosperity Action Fund seem to be the largest spenders on down-ballot digital ads in the state, promoting their own endorsed candidates to voters in pretty generic ads:
Democrats have majority control of both the Nevada Assembly and state Senate, but Republicans are working hard to flip at least one of these chambers.
The Silver State is one of the few in which Democrats have trifecta (governorship + both legislative chambers) control of state government, and the GOP is gunning to take that away.
The Nevada Senate is especially vulnerable, since Republicans only need to flip two of the 11 seats on the ballot this November (terms here are staggered–the other 10 members are up in 2024).
The battle for chamber control is a tougher one for the GOP in the Assembly, as they’ll need to flip five of those 42 seats to flip it.
Nevada is another state that’s seeing medium- to large-scale digital ad investments from progressive outside groups in state legislative contests.
The top spending advertiser in this regard is a group called New Day Nevada, which has spent more than $350,000 on Facebook ads over the past 90 days. That organization is hammering Republican candidates with attack ads in English and Spanish related to abortion and extremism.
Nevada Legislative Victory has also spent around $40,000 running Facebook ads attacking Republicans for wanting to ban abortion, as has the American Leadership Committee - Nevada, running $20,000 of very similar anti-Republican, pro-abortion rights ads on Facebook.
Together, those three liberal advertisers make up the bulk of digital ad spending in Nevada’s state legislative elections.
Republicans, somehow, are largely MIA here.
Statewide races in Arizona are taking up most of the oxygen here, but given how narrow the GOP’s grip is on the legislative majority in both chambers, this could be an opportunity for Democrats.
Team blue needs to flip just two seats (of 60) in the state House to take majority control there, and flipping just one seat in the state Senate would break the Republican majority and tie the chamber 15-15.
In Arizona, we’ve seen much less digital spending related to state legislative elections (and much more spending on the major statewide contests).
From what we can tell, a few advertisers have spent a few thousand dollars on Facebook ads supporting a handful of candidates, but that’s mostly it.
Democrats are generally outspending Republicans online.
One progressive organization, Opportunity Arizona, appears to be the largest advertiser on Facebook in these races, spending a little over $30,000 in the past few months attacking Republican candidates for their abortion positions and extremist MAGA ties as well as supporting Democrats on the ballot.
Additionally, a few individual candidates like Laura Terech and Christine Porter Marsh have run small but mighty Facebook ad campaigns introducing themselves to voters and running contrast ads on issues (like reproductive freedom).
The Keystone State is another where Democrats have non-GOP gerrymandered legislative maps for the first time in over 10 years, though the road to the majority in either chamber is tougher here (I’m not alone in expecting it to be a two-cycle endeavor).
Democrats need to flip 12 seats (of 203) in the House to win majority control of that chamber.
Like Nevada, the Pennsylvania Senate has staggered terms, and half of the upper chamber’s 50 seats are on the ballot in November; Democrats need to flip four of them to win a majority.
Pennsylvania has also seen limited investment in digital ads supporting or opposing state legislative candidates.
The exception comes from a few progressive outside groups.
First, Planned Parenthood’s Pennsylvania affiliate is blanketing the state on Facebook attacking Republican legislators on abortion rights. The group has spent over $52,000 on these ads in the past 90 days, as well a few thousand bucks on YouTube:
Similarly, progressive nonprofit Red, Wine, & Blue has spent over $30,000 during the same time period attacking Republican legislators on the issue.
The pro-environment Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania has also run advertising in these races, spending around $27,000 on recent ads promoting a state legislative environmental policy “scorecard.”
See? Wasn’t that cool??
And I know I just threw a lot of numbers and data at you, but I have just a couple more.
Remember last week, when I predicted that the GOP-controlled Wisconsin legislature would gavel out in 20 seconds after convening the special session Democratic Gov. Tony Evers called with the (admittedly pie-in-the-sky) goal of letting voters propose and decide on a ballot measure enshrining reproductive freedom in the state constitution?
Well, I was wrong.
After convening the special session on Tuesday, the state Senate gaveled out after 15 seconds of session.
Price is Right rules, I lose
And finally, with Spooky Szn upon us, I leave you with a scary little update:
A couple of weeks ago in this space, I mentioned that the good folks over at the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee had assembled a list of over 1,000 election deniers who are in or running for state legislative seats across the country, including 16 who are so convinced that Trump won the 2020 election that they came to DC on Jan. 6, 2021.
With over 6,000 legislative seats on the ballot this year, it’s a daunting project to begin with, and it’s both no wonder and super sad that the DLCC has had to update its totals.
The grand total of election deniers at the state legislative level has ticked up to over 1,100, and the number of those running for state legislative office this year is north of 700.
Obviously democracy deniers’ victories anywhere—even in deep-red states—are both bad and scary, but even more frightening is the fact that these “Big Lie”-believing MAGAites make up significant percentages of the Republican candidates in top-targeted chambers.
Consider, for instance, Michigan, where Democrats could–but are certainly not guaranteed to–flip at least one legislative chamber in November.
Over 30% of the Republicans running for the Michigan legislature are democracy deniers.
Yes, nearly a third of the GOP names on the ballot here are Trump acolytes–some of whom were actually in DC for the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
And if Republicans hold on to their majorities in the statehouse, it’s going to be thanks in part to those election-denying candidates.
Who will then have real power within the party caucus that controls a crucial part of state government.
I mean, even if Democrats flip a chamber, some of these democracy deniers will still get elected.
And while these folks don’t belong in government at all if they're actively working to undermine the electoral process that got them there, they’re far less of a threat in the minority party.
And on that sunny note…
Thank you for being a part of this very special TWISA/FWIW crossover event!
Data is fun!
Or at least interesting!
And if you’re staring down the barrel of a long weekend, great! It’s also definitely important for you to get a little extra recharge in, if you can.
Take care of yourself.
You’re important, and we need you.
Thanks for reading This Week in Statehouse Action! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.