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Democratic PAC Priorities USA budgeting $50 million for digital ads in 2018

Guy Cecil, head of Priorities USA, photographed June 26, 2012, when he was executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. (Reuters)

A Democratic super PAC is planning to spend at least $50 million over the next year on digital advertising to elect Democrats across the country in what is believed to be the largest sum ever set aside for such outreach on the political left.

The plans set to be unveiled by Priorities USA on Thursday are unusual, given that the group poured nearly $200 million into trying to elect Hillary Clinton president last year through mostly traditional television and radio advertising. The campaign is designed to jump-start the Democratic Party’s outreach to voters online and will initially focus on seven states — Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — where Democrats are competing in competitive federal and state races and attempting to win back control of state legislatures.

In those states, “If you’re a persuadable voter, an independent voter, a ticket-switcher — someone who voted for Mitt Romney but didn’t vote for Donald Trump, or voted for Barack Obama but didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton — you’re likely to receive some attention,” Guy Cecil, chairman of Priorities USA, said in an interview previewing the plan.

The digital ad campaign will be the group’s primary mode of advertising for political campaigns, but the group doesn’t rule out spend other money on issue-specific ads on television and radio. Other Democratic super PACs such as House Majority PAC and Senate Majority PAC will continue to lay down money for TV and radio ads. Priorities plans to partner with Senate Majority PAC on digital campaigns in states such as Missouri and North Dakota, Cecil said.

The ads produced by the group will be a mix of state-specific issues and messages designed to draw out voters no matter where they live, Cecil said. While some Democrats are insisting that the party needs to focus intently on anything other than a “Stop Trump” message, Cecil said much of his group’s advertising will focus on the president.

“Anybody who thinks that Donald Trump is not going to be part of the 2018 election probably hasn’t been paying attention much,” he said. “Donald Trump will not allow the 2018 elections to not be a referendum on him. He wants to be the center of discussion, the center of the universe, and we’re happy to help make him that.”

Cecil is among those senior party operatives who are concerned that Democrats are being far outspent and outpaced in the digital space. During the 2016 cycle, Republicans outspent Democrats on digital ads and outreach by at least $24 million, he said. Based on his group’s research, most GOP campaigns and conservative groups are devoting 25 to 30 percent of their paid media budgets to digital ads, while Democratic campaigns or liberal groups only devote single-digit percentages to the same space.

“We have a systemic problem that is reflective of the fact that Republicans and their conservative allies have built permanent long-term infrastructure that isn’t about a candidate or one particular issue but about how they move Americans ideologically over the course of time,” Cecil said.

In a memo to donors being sent on Thursday, Cecil explains that the new campaign is designed “to be specifically additive to the spending that campaigns should do this cycle, both on persuasion and mobilization. We will not be a substitute for campaigns’ core spending on digital, and they should not view us as such.”

The campaign may expand to more states, but only as the PAC raises more money, he said.

“While we’re going to raise significant amounts of money, we’re never going to raise as much as the Kochs and the Mercers are investing in their operations,” he said in the interview.

The Mercer family of Republican mega-donors initially backed the 2016 presidential bid of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and later shifted allegiance to President Trump, and remains supportive of GOP candidates and causes. The libertarian industrialists Charles and David Koch have also bankrolled state-level and federal campaigns for several years, with varying success.

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Cecil is set to oversee a team of about 60 people — including videographers, graphics designers and scriptwriters employed in-house to conceptualize and produce pre-roll video ads, specialty websites and email fundraising pitches.

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The states selected for the Priorities USA campaign reflect a mix of offensive and defensive necessities for Democrats.

Party leaders are increasingly bullish on Arizona, where Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) is outpacing potential GOP opponents in the race to succeed retiring Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and where the party hopes to pick up state legislative and congressional seats. In Nevada, Rep. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) is running against embattled incumbent Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), while there are also competitive statewide and congressional races.

Florida is Florida — an expensive state with three expensive major media markets and a place where voters will be picking a new governor. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) may also face a tough reelection fight against term-limited Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who is still mulling a Senate bid, and there could be as many as four competitive House races.

Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin all went for Trump in 2016 — stunning many Democrats, who believed the states would remain reliably blue. Next year brings competitive gubernatorial and Senate races in each state and opportunities for Democrats to make gains in the state legislature and congressional delegations.

Looking ahead, “We don’t shy away from the fact that we have an eye on what we need to do in 2020 to defeat Donald Trump,” Cecil said.

The $50 million effort is likely to be welcomed by Democrats, who are raising notably large sums for their House and Senate campaign committees and have seen an unprecedented wave of recruits run for office. But the Democratic National Committee is lagging in fundraising, and state party operations nationwide have been depleted after years of setbacks during the Obama era.

Since the 2016 elections, Priorities USA has sought to remake itself into a permanent center of opposition to the Trump administration in hopes of helping the Democratic Party win back support it lost last year. The group merged with a nonprofit voting rights group and picked up the backing of other progressive organizations, including Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the American Federation of Teachers, the Human Rights Campaign and the Latino Victory Project.