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Senate candidates spending campaign cash early so they can raise more later

Digital strategists say early investments are key to strong fundraising

Senate candidates who are raising lots of campaign cash aren’t waiting to spend it, early fundraising numbers show.

A handful of Senate candidates have spent more than $1 million from April through June, even though Election Day is more than 15 months away. Fundraising reports due to the Federal Election Commission by midnight Thursday are expected to show that much of the early spending has gone to bolster digital operations and expand donor email lists, which will become critical sources for fundraising next year.

Spending money early in a race, or having a high “burn rate,” used to be viewed as irresponsible. But campaigns now recognize that, when it comes to fundraising online, they have to spend sooner to raise even more later. 

“Ten years ago, before online fundraising was a big part of campaigns, people were so concerned about burn rate. But now there’s a big understanding that you have to invest in your email list early on,” said Julia Ager, president of Sapphire Strategies, who served as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s chief digital officer in 2018. 

“Every dollar you put in is going to turn into two dollars later,” she said. 

Early spending

Most Senate candidates have not yet released how much cash their campaigns had at the end of the second quarter on June 30. But a handful who have done so make it possible to calculate how much they also spent. 

Florida Rep. Val B. Demings, who is seeking the Democratic nomination to challenge GOP Sen. Marco Rubio, spent $1.6 million of the $4.6 million she raised in the first fundraising quarter since launching her campaign in June. Pennsylvania Democrat Val Arkoosh, who chairs the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners, spent $375,000, which is a sizable percentage of the $1 million she raised. 

Incumbents up for reelection have also been willing to spend early. Democratic Sens. Mark Kelly of Arizona and Raphael Warnock of Georgia, top GOP targets running for full terms next year after winning special elections last cycle, spent nearly $3 million and $2.5 million, respectively, in the second quarter. 

Both senators have been consistently strong fundraisers, and they have continued to bolster their campaign coffers. Kelly raised more than $6 million from April through June and had $7 million on hand on June 30; Warnock raised $7 million and had $10.5 million in the bank.  

South Carolina GOP Sen. Tim Scott raised a whopping $9.6 million in the second quarter. He also appears to have spent $4 million, but his campaign still ended the quarter with $14.5 million in the bank. 

There are some signs that these Senate candidates have focused their spending on building their lists of donor email addresses and phone numbers. 

Since mid-April, Demings’ campaign has spent $1.7 million on Facebook, according to the platform’s Ad Library. Digital strategists say Facebook is a useful place to solicit donations through targeted digital ads and to encourage supporters to sign up for a campaign’s email list, which can be tapped for donations later. 

Warnock’s campaign spent $524,000 on Facebook over that same period, while Kelly spent $440,000. Scott’s team spent $82,000 on the social media platform and Arkoosh’s campaign spent $34,000. 

Paying off?

Early investment in building a sizable donor list is critical to ensuring fundraising spikes in the last six months of the election cycle, when the most money flows to campaigns, said Rebecca Donatelli, a GOP digital consultant and president of Campaign Solutions. 

“We like to explain it like a hockey stick,” Donatelli said, describing how the bottom of a hockey stick is flat but then sharply rises. 

“So you invest, invest, invest, build your file … and then the payoff comes,” she said. 

Some campaigns may already be seeing the benefits of early investments. 

In the first quarter from January through March, Pennsylvania Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman spent $2.1 million, or roughly half of the $4 million he raised for the state’s open Senate race. Most of his expenditures, $1.5 million, were on “email acquisition,” digital ads and digital consulting. Fetterman had another strong quarter from April through June, raising $2.5 million, although he has not yet released his cash-on-hand number. 

The early spending helped Fetterman build an email list of more than 1 million supporters, according to his campaign. The second quarter included 31,000 first-time donors. Almost none of the donors have hit the individual donation limit of $2,900 for the primary and $2,900 for the general election, so they can continue to give to the campaign. 

Kelly and Warnock, who had both built robust fundraising operations for their special elections, continue to see their grassroots donors engaged and growing. More than 110,000 people have donated to Warnock, according to his campaign. And 35 percent of Kelly’s donors so far in 2021 are new. 

No ‘one size fits all’

Multiple strategists said there is no suggested standard for how much a campaign should be spending to bolster its donors lists at this point in the cycle, since that amount depends on the type of race, the other candidates and the existing campaign infrastructure.  

“There’s no ‘one size fits all,’” said Tim Lim, a Democratic digital consultant. 

Taryn Rosenkranz of New Blue Interactive, a digital firm that works with Democratic Senate candidates, advises campaigns to spread out spending aimed at building donor lists over multiple quarters, so the campaign has funds to capitalize on a viral moment to build its list. 

“While I do say, ‘Invest early, invest early,’ it’s not necessary to invest everything early,” she said. 

Early investments to build donor lists, also known as “acquisition,” can involve launching digital ads on platforms including Facebook, prompting supporters to sign up. Rosenkranz said Facebook and Google are two of the best sources for acquisition, and campaigns may be “playing catch-up” after political ads were temporarily suspended on those platforms due to the 2020 election. 

Email acquisition also involves working with digital firms that can help identify and target likely donors, and broker deals with other groups to rent or trade their donor lists. 

Rosenkranz also said that, in addition to fundraising, an expansive email list and a robust digital operation can help a campaign better organize supporters and volunteers, rapidly respond to breaking developments and spread its message to more voters. 

“When it’s touching every aspect of the campaign, suddenly making an early investment seems like it’s worthwhile,” she said.

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