While some in conservative circles have clung to the narrative that Texas is still a reliably Republican state, the same can’t be said of longtime Texas Senator John Cornyn. The former Attorney General and onetime judge in the Lone Star State has seen the seas of political change sweep the state multiple times since first winning elected office in the 80’s. He was one of the first and most vocal voices warning D.C. Republicans that all is not well in Texas.
And his campaign activities telegraph that concern more than a year from the election. The senator has spent over $107,000 on digital advertising from January-August for his 2020 re-election bid, according to social media data reviewed by The Texas Signal. Through the first quarter of the year that only amounted to about $25,000, an amount he almost doubled in the following quarter. His spending upswing shows no signs of slowing down; he spent over $30,000 from early July to August 24th. Most of the investment has been on Facebook.
When you peel back the curtain on what he’s been communicating with that six-figure budget, you start to understand some of the recent criticism that progressives and sensible Texans have aimed at the three-term senator.
The Cornyn campaign has spent more on ads about immigration than all but one topic (we’ll get to that in a moment). He’s asked voters to add their name to a list agreeing to more border security. He’s asked if people agreed that Texas needs to secure our border from drugs and crime. He’s run multiple ads with an image of Nancy Pelosi asking about giving healthcare to illegal immigrants.
Ads like this are commonplace across the political spectrum. What Cornyn’s team is hoping to do is attract voters to sign a petition, say they agree with Donald Trump’s calls for stronger borders or even sign a birthday card to Melania Trump. The cost to the voter is to simply provide their email address, which is all Team Cornyn needs to send those folks fundraising appeals and calls to action via email.
In short, Cornyn is investing in list building, a tried and true tactic for any good digital fundraising program, and one deployed to virtuoso effect by Democratic presidential candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, as well as Beto O’Rourke in his record-breaking 2018 Senate campaign. By building a large well of grassroots donors capable of contributing a nearly endless stream of contributions that range anywhere from $1 to $50 per month, Cornyn is able to expand his fundraising base in a year when Trump’s re-election will gobble up most of the attention and high-level fundraising nationally.
What’s troubling is the Cornyn team’s seeming willingness to rip from the Trump playbook and use strong, if not incendiary, language to appeal to his base. The campaign has spent the most money on ads promoting the President, in hopes of appealing directly to the MAGA crowd.
When you look further into the topics Cornyn has run ads on, he’s talked about socialism, Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, even kneeling during the national anthem. There is scarcely little about Cornyn or his record, and the only direct attack he’s made against an opponent is Dallas State Senator Royce West. His camp seems bizarrely intent on trying to nationalize their messaging.
On the Democratic side, MJ Hegar, who entered the primary first, has spent $167,000 digitally, largely devoted to building her own fundraising base. Houston City Council Member Amanda Edwards has spent about $15,000 between Facebook and Google, while Royce West seems to have spent a little under $6,000, mostly on Facebook. Cristina Tzinzun Ramirez, the most recent entrant into the senate primary, has already moved ahead of West in total dollars spent, both on Facebook and Google.
Rounding out the field, Sema Hernandez has spent less than $200 and Chris Bell doesn’t seem to have spent anything thus far.
The increased emphasis on digital spending is another clear indicator that campaigns recognize that the future of voter contact and paid communication is digital. With Texas taking on outsized importance as the biggest battleground state in 2020, we’re likely to see more digital advertising in the state than ever.
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