The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Trailer: Who sponsored this message? Why you're seeing so many ads so far from the midterms.

In this edition: The very early campaign ad war, the meaning of a Trump loss in Texas, and a bitter end to Ohio's special elections.

I'm willing to cover Hawaii's redistricting process from the ground for as long as it takes, and this is The Trailer.

No, but seriously: The newsletter will be on a break until mid-August while we take a little time off in the birthplace of the 44th president, the last host of "Mystery Science Theater 3000," and Israel Kamakawiwoʻole. Look for coverage of next week's special elections in The Washington Post. And buy this book.

You’re minding your own business, trying to find a semi-legal live stream for the artistic swimming final. An ad starts to play, and suddenly, you are hearing nice things about President Biden.

“They’re delivering for us — hundreds of millions of vaccines,” says a chipper narrator in a Priorities USA spot.

“They sent a bill to Congress to protect ‘dreamers,’ but a Texas federal judge just blocked the DACA program,” says a more worried narrator in a Building Back Together spot. 

Too depressing? The Democratic National Committee had that covered with a July 4 ad saluting American grit “through fireworks and parades.”

Since Biden took office, tens of millions of dollars have already been spent on campaign-style ads, long before anybody will be voting. Permanent campaigning isn’t new, but this level of advertising is. Democrats are convinced that a lack of positive, in-your-face paid messaging hurt Barack Obama’s presidency from the state, while Republicans are nearly as visible already, pulling Biden’s party into an incredibly early ad war. And unlike candidates, most of the groups making the ads don't have to disclose who'd funding them.

"As Democrats, we think good policy is good politics," said Stephanie Cutter, a strategist for Building Back Together, the pro-Biden group set up in February to constantly advertise his agenda. "It is, but it’s better politics if you ensure people understand how they specifically benefit and who helped deliver that for them."

There are no federal elections until November 2022, apart from a handful of special House races. Those contests, combined, have seen a fraction of the spending flying across TV and websites since January. The Real Recovery Now! coalition put $10 million behind ads celebrating the American Rescue Plan and hitting Republicans for opposing it. The Democrats’ House and Senate campaign committees bought digital ads in swing districts in Florida to advertise the revised child tax credit.

A left-wing coalition called Stop Deficit Squawks has bought YouTube pre-roll ads making an argument that's usually confined to meeting rooms in Washington: That the Committee for a Responsible Budget, which “may appear nonpartisan,” exists to protect the wealthy from tax fairness.

“It’s important to have a constant drumbeat so that folks know about the ‘build back better’ agenda,” Abby Curran Horrell, the executive director of the Democrats' House Majority Forward, said when the PAC launched a $10 million campaign to promote the child tax credit. “This is a winning issue that is really popular.”

They’ve had plenty of competition on the right. The National Republican Senatorial Committee and National Republican Congressional Committee have been hammering Democrats over inflation; Democrats are readying a response, in part, because Building Back Together studied those ads and found that they clicked. Boosted by surging digital fundraising, party committees and outside groups have been launching ads more than a year before any candidates will have to answer for their votes.

“There’s an old school mentality that you hoard your money until the last two months before the election,” said Chris Hartline, communications director at the NRSC. “But it takes time to move numbers … when there's good opportunities early, we're going to take them.” 

The committee has already spent seven figures in Georgia, where Sen. Raphael G. Warnock is up for reelection in 2022, tying his support for the Democrats’ election reform bill to Major League Baseball’s decision to move the All-Star Game out of Atlanta.

The ads are hard to avoid, but have rarely gone viral. Working apart but relying on the usual Democratic ad-makers, the spots pushing Biden's agenda have hit the themes that focus groups found most compelling, heavy on patriotic b-roll footage. 

What's worked? An analysis by Building Back Together, distributed last week and obtained by The Post, suggested that the ads that played best were the most direct and most related to quality of life. Instead of “broadband access,” ads and messaging should tout “high-speed Internet." To ward off fears of too much spending, ads should “always talk about how the plans are paid for.” To describe lower-profile policy goals, messengers needed to center normal people: "When you talk about clean water, it tests better to have a kid drinking water than washing hands."

Republicans were landing hits in the permanent campaign, even if their messaging from day-to-day was scattered. “We must address the tax hit head-on to help respond to Republican attacks and sell the agenda,” Building Back Together advised. The most effective Republican ad, according to their research, was not a national spot or a hit on Biden. It had been a 15-second ad in Des Moines that blamed Democrats for “making everyday goods cost more” by printing and spending more money.

“They did more damage with this ad than nearly any other conservative ad tested,” according to the Democratic group. “This ad could be a harbinger of Republican spots to come.”

Building Back Together was planning to fight back against the spending and tax messages in August, when members of Congress still expect to be home for a summer recess. Twelve years ago, Democrats were caught flat-footed when congressional town halls erupted into protests against the Affordable Care Act. 

That's the memory that haunts Democratic donors, fueling the many efforts to sell Biden's agenda. In 2009 and 2010, Democratic strategist Eddie Vale was the spokesman for Protect Your Care, a group started by liberal groups to advertise the benefits of the Affordable Care Act, which struggled to get attention and raise money.

“It was lonely because it was almost entirely focused on people directly tied to health care, like SEIU,” Vale remembered. “It didn’t get the broad attention, so you weren’t going to get help from super PAC world, or campaign world.” 

Protect Your Care produced a single ad, which described how the ACA’s benefits helped a bagel shop hire more people. “Everybody loved it,” said Vale, “and everybody said: Yeah, we’re not going to give you money for more of this.”

Money isn't a problem anymore. Vale's now a strategist for the Real Recovery Now! coalition, and within weeks of launching, it was flying flags at vaccination sites, urging people to credit those they might not have been thinking about at that moment: Democratic senators.

The new group, Vale said, spent more money in its first month than Protect Your Care did over two years.

Reading list

“Get into details about Biden’s plans and beware of GOP inflation attacks, Democratic group advises,” by Annie Linskey and Michael Scherer

How the Democrats' messaging machine sees this summer.

“Texas loss alarms Trump advisers worried about party clout,” by Alex Isenstadt

The former president gets embarrassed in a special election.

“Democrats craft revised voting rights bill, seeking to keep hopes alive in the Senate,” by Mike DeBonis

Beyond H.R.1.

“An early test of Trump’s clout in Ohio special election,” by Matthew Kassel

The stakes in the Columbus exurbs.

“As Trump pushed for probes of 2020 election, he called acting AG Rosen almost daily,” by Josh Dawsey and Devlin Barrett

More details on the insurrection months.

“‘He’s a great guy’: Trump’s favored aide has troubled past,” by Michael Kruse

Why did Trump get behind Max Miller?

Turnout watch

On May 3, two days after she grabbed a place in the runoff election for Texas's 6th Congressional District, Susan Wright dialed into 660 AM in Irving to talk to Mark Davis. The conservative morning show host had just talked to her opponent, state Rep. Jake Ellzey, and he had questions about the negative ads coming from her campaign. One piece of mail, he said, portrayed dangerous-looking gang members to suggest that Ellzey, a former Navy fighter pilot, would work with Democrats to open the border.

“In what way is Jake for open borders?” Davis asked.

Wright paused. “Well, that is taken from some of his words,” she said. “That is not taken to be a positive or a negative. It's simply, a conversation, you know?”

Davis laughed, as Wright argued that Ellzey's support for virtual border security complicated his support for a border wall. “You know,” she said, “when we run against Democrats, we do the same thing.”

Ellzey defeated Wright on Tuesday, and Democrats were part of the reason. The February death of Wright's husband, Rep. Ron Wright, kicked off the special election. His widow, a behind-the-scenes party activist, entered the race by lining up endorsements, and got the most votes in the May 1 primary, thanks to a last-minute endorsement from Trump. 

After that, Republicans say, Wright put little effort into the runoff, while the Club for Growth spent more than $1.1 million on ads for her that alienated voters just as the “open borders” mailer had alienated Davis. Trump occasionally put out statements on the race, but Wright didn't capitalize on the endorsement to catch up with Ellzey's fundraising: $1.7 million to a bit more than $700,000 for her.

She lost by seven points amid very low turnout, with fewer than one in 11 registered voters bothering to turn in a ballot. Turnout was lowest in Tarrant County, in the suburbs between Fort Worth and Dallas where most of the district's voters live. Ellzey won his base of Ellis County, Wright edged him out in the less populous Navarro County, but Ellzey won the biggest and bluest part of the district, the bit that had narrowly backed Biden in 2020.

In the primary, Tarrant alone cast 52,752 votes, with 24,033 votes going to Democratic candidates, 9,165 going to Wright, and just 4,732 going to Ellzey. Local races, including mayoral and school board contests, helped drive turnout in ways that weren't going to be repeated in a sleepy July runoff. In the end, just 23,960 votes were cast in Tarrant this time around: 12,655 for Ellzey and 11,305 for Wright. Ellzey absorbed Democrats into his coalition, while Trump's last-minute reiterations of his endorsement didn't move votes: Wright got 49 percent of the county's early vote, and just 45 percent of ballots cast on Election Day. Trump's intervention ended up convincing many Democrats to cast an anti-Trump vote for Ellzey.

Trump's interest in the race led to widespread coverage of Wright's defeat, after the Republican-on-Republican runoff generated little news. In a Wednesday interview with Axios, Trump argued that the race was “not a loss” because Democrats had been prevented from winning the seat. (A crowded and weakly funded group of Democrats split their base in the primary, allowing Ellzey to make the runoff by fewer than 400 votes.) 

The race wasn't really a test of Trump's clout with Republicans, because it wasn't closed to Republican voters. Just as conservatives in Louisiana's 2nd Congressional District gave Rep. Troy A. Carter (D-La.) a boost in his April runoff, Democrats helped Ellzey. Just around 1,500 Democrats showed up during early voting, but on Election Day, the Ellzey campaign texted Democrats to remind them that Wright had been endorsed by Trump.

Wright and her allies hoped to carry her through the runoff by discrediting Ellzey while reminding Republican voters which candidate was endorsed by Trump. But she did little campaigning, and didn't stand by the Club for Growth's ads, while Ellzey and his endorsers gave interviews denouncing them. Former governor Rick Perry and Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas)  became frequent validators for Ellzey, with Perry, in particular, attacking the Club for its negative campaign.

“If you stood up a piece of her mail across the room, you could tell it was negative,” said Ellzey strategist Craig Murphy. “If she’d decided to have a positive campaign you'd have seen images of her out with people, not just standing alone. It was just her headshot over and over again.”

That wasn't what Trump signed on for. He initially stayed out of the race, which at the start included the former chief of staff at his Department of Health and Human Services. But the Club for Growth had spent to keep Ellzey out of Congress when the Rep.-elect ran three years ago, and during a late May meeting with Trump, Club for Growth President David McIntosh convinced the ex-president that Wright was a winner and Ellzey was not a reliable conservative. Trump made the call, the Club quickly rushed out radio ads that warned that the race could be a “key test of Trump’s continuing power in the party,” and when Wright made the runoff, Trump took credit.

Wright got 19 percent of the primary vote, leading the field but revealing some signs of weakness. She’d struggled with voters who cast ballots early, but surged with election-day voters. Trump’s clout with Republican voters had moved them to Wright, but the candidate hadn’t been able to consolidate votes without him. 

Democrats were humiliated in the primary, failing to get into a runoff in a district where Biden won 47 percent of the vote. But Wright had staggered across the finish line. Ellzey’s first post-primary poll put Wright ahead, while a majority of voters were undecided. But there was a hint of strength in the challenger: when voters were informed of his military biography, they backed Ellzey.

Over the 12-week runoff, Wright squandered her advantage. She ran few ads of her own. She declined to debate Ellzey and was criticized by both local and national conservative media for not being available for interviews, while Ellzey was. The Club for Growth’s polling consistently showed Wright ahead, and that message got directly to Trump.

“The establishment world just sort of presumed that Susan Wright, as Ron’s widow, would just inherit that seat,” Davis told his listeners on Election Day. “Trump doesn’t know Susan Wright from Susan Sarandon.” In an interview on Wednesday, Davis added that Wright was a “mannerly, gracious, wonderful woman,” which made the negative campaign against a devoutly Christian veteran look phony.

“I believe her handlers wanted to protect her, which isn't a bad idea for a first-time candidate,” Davis said. “Her and Ron were generous and fair-minded people, and the ads did not reflect that. It gave people the impression that she was saddled with handlers and wasn't speaking up for herself.”

Trump had endorsed a winner in a superficially similar race — the special election this spring in Louisiana’s 5th Congressional District, where Rep.-elect Luke Letlow had died after contracting covid-19. Letlow’s widow, Julia, easily won the race, securing a majority of the vote and preventing a runoff. The lesson Trump took away was that widows were hard to beat in special elections.

The problem: Texas's race wasn't much like Louisiana's. Letlow had no serious opponents to go negative against. Wright's allies went negative, but Ellzey was far more active rebutting the attacks than Wright was in making or amplifying them. Perry, the former governor, who met Ellzey years earlier when he was a pilot with no political connections, relentlessly campaigned for the candidate and got earned media attacking the ads as phony. Wright had no rebuttal. 

"[Trump] totally was taken to the cleaners by the Club for Growth,” Perry told Axios after the election.

Ellzey pushed back Wednesday on the idea that Trump had lost the election, telling Davis it was “nonsense” from a Trump-obsessed media. “The president is still exceptionally popular in this district,” he said, noting that he did not criticize Trump during the campaign.

Similar arguments have broken out in other races with Trump-backed candidates. In next week’s primary in Ohio’s 15th Congressional District, Trump has backed Mike Carey, a conservative attorney who had less local support than some state legislators seeking the seat. Carey’s campaign has built the endorsement, and his short speech at a July Trump rally, into his paid media. Rivals like state Rep. Jeff LaRe, who’s backed by retired Rep. Steve Stivers, who held the seat until May, said that they were getting traction by focusing on issues, like fighting crime.

“There’s only one Trump, just like there’s only one Steve Stivers,” LaRe said in an interview. “At the end of the day we’re all individuals. An endorsement doesn’t make the candidate.”

Ad watch

Stop the Republican Recall, “Here's the Deal.” The campaign to save California Gov. Gavin Newsom's job is focused on exciting Democrats who aren't particularly motivated to turn out for an unusually timed election. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who faded in California's primary but did well among White Democrats with college degrees, jumps into the explainer role to say that “Trump Republicans” are “abusing the recall process” and “costing taxpayers millions.The election date, Sept. 14, appears on-screen for seven of the ad's 30 seconds. 

Nina Turner, “Ethics. The primary in Ohio's 11th Congressional District ends next week, and Turner, whose early lead has been chipped away by PAC attack ads, is still pounding away at rival Shontel Brown. This is the second ad that goes after the Cuyahoga County councilor and party chair over allegations that she steered contracts to friends and relatives. “Brown could face criminal charges,” a narrator says, as a slamming prison door appears on-screen. “And if convicted? Jail time.” (The Ohio Ethics Commission has not confirmed or denied that Brown is under investigation, and her campaign has not commented.)

America's Liberty PAC, “Ron Hood.” The Aug. 3 Republican primary in Ohio's 15th Congressional District is crowded, and a Trump endorsement hasn't helped attorney Mike Carey pull away from the field, even if the former president's themes remain popular. One reason is that other influential Republicans picked other candidates; Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) got behind Hood, a libertarian who briefly served in the state legislature. Paul's PAC doesn't get into great detail in this 15-second clip, which calls Hood a “forever Trumper.”

Bob Peterson, “A Fighter, Not a Follower.” Peterson is an Ohio state senator also seeking the GOP nomination in the 15th Congressional District. His advantage: Ohio Right to Life endorsed him. That's the main theme of this ad, which shows Peterson facing off against literal sheep representing the other Republicans. “Most of my opponents voted for pro-abortion liberals, are D.C. insiders, or never voted for a pro-life bill,” Peterson says. “If you can't trust them on life, how can you trust them on anything else?” The “never voted” line is a knock at Carey, who has never held office.

Ruth Edmonds, “One Country.” Edmonds, a conservative pastor, is the only Black candidate in the Republican primary in Ohio's 15th Congressional District. She's done conservative media hits criticizing the left's thinking on race, which have built up her name identification. The ad sums her take up in 30 seconds, praising America's progress and innovations and saying she won't stand by while the country is criticized. “It's time to stop judging every White person as a villain, and every brown person as a victim.”

Poll watch

Do you approve of the job Joe Biden is doing as president? (Gallup, 1,007 adults)

Approve: 50% (-6 since June)
Disapprove: 45% (-3)

In the past two weeks, the president's stable approval numbers dipped to new lows. That's the usual pattern for a new president, and Biden's numbers on the issues Republicans have focused on the most, immigration and the economy, have fallen into the 30s. Why is he still in roughly better shape than Trump at this point in his presidency or Bill Clinton in his? Resilient support from partisan Democrats. Ninety percent of them say they support Biden's work so far. That's the lowest level of Democratic support since Biden became the nominee last year, but far better than Clinton fared as he battled his own party in 1993. While independents have cooled on Biden, they don't oppose his record at the levels they opposed Trump's by this point. Context is key: Trump in the summer of 2017 was coming off the unpopular effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, while Biden's legislative agenda (infrastructure and tax credits) remains popular.

Do you approve of the jobs Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are doing? (Berkeley IGS, 5,785 registered California voters)

Joe Biden
Approve: 59% (-3 since April)
Disapprove: 37% (+3)

Kamala Harris
Approve: 49% (-4)
Disapprove: 38% (+5)

California Democrats hope to beat back this year's recall effort by polarizing the electorate, and getting the majority of voters who don't usually vote Republican to turn out. There's less support for the president and president here than there was in 2020, but not by much for Biden. The pollster's analysis: The dips for both Biden and Harris largely come from Democrats who are growing frustrated that some of their priorities haven't been acted on. Neither is absorbing blame for some of the quality-of-life issues roiling California, like homelessness and energy costs. Harris is heading back home at some point to stump for Gov. Gavin Newsom, and if Democrats are right, waking up their base would be enough to win the election without converting voters or winning back people who'd drifted since 2020.

Special elections

Democrats in Ohio's 11th Congressional District are closing out the race with a flurry of surrogate visits and slashing attack ads. No one professes to be very happy about it.

“The way I started this race,” former state senator Nina Turner said in an interview in the district this month, “is the way I wanted to finish it.” 

Turner was talking about her initial, policy-heavy messaging, which also emphasized her work with Republicans like former governor John Kasich. Cuyahoga County councilor and Democratic chair Shontel Brown, meanwhile, said she'd taken “a firm stance that I would run a positive campaign,” pointing out that the negative ads hitting Turner had come largely from the Democratic Majority for Israel's PAC, with which she couldn't legally coordinate. Turner, she pointed out, was starring in ads that attacked her. “When the candidate looks in the camera and they say, I approve this message, then you can rest assured that that negativity is coming from their campaign.”

Anti-Turner ads have continued to focus on her criticism of the last two Democratic nominees for president; Turner's campaign has accused Brown of self-dealing and corruption. At a Wednesday news conference, Turner and allies warned that the campaign against her was funded by corporate-friendly conservatives who wanted a pliable member of Congress.

“They're putting money behind people who really don't care about you,” says state Rep. Juanita Brent. “The people that supported Trump … are the same people that are supporting these negative ads. This isn't Bernie versus Biden, this is us versus Trump.” 

It's been a struggle to put that message in front of voters. Mainstream media outlets in Cleveland and Akron have been gutted since the area's last competitive elections, with just a few local reporters covering the race. Turner's material on Brown has frequently come from the D.C.-based investigative reporters at the Intercept, which pointed to New England Patriots owner and Trump ally Robert Kraft's donation to Democratic Majority for Israel and the previous chair of the Cuyahoga County Republican Party donating to Brown.

“For anyone to be under the impression that that at least my allegiance or decision-making factors can be bought for four or five thousand dollars, they clearly don't know me very well,” Brown said. “The fact of the matter is, we are selective. You know, we have relationships with corporations who do good work in our communities and are definitely putting us in a position to be competitive as well. And so we take all of those things into consideration.”

House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) will campaign with Brown this weekend, while Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is scheduled to appear at Turner's get-out-the-vote rally, featuring numerous allies from the Sanders campaign, on Saturday. The moderate Democratic group Third Way put a quarter of a million dollars into the race last week; Justice Democrats, which has been supporting Turner since she announced, transferred $150,000 to Democratic Action PAC, a group created to beat back the negative attacks.

The primaries in Ohio's 15th Congressional District also come to an end on Tuesday, with any Republican nominee favored to win the seat in November. (Donald Trump got 56 percent of the vote here in 2020, while Joe Biden got 80 percent of the vote in the 11th.) As in Texas, the Club for Growth has provided artillery for the Trump-backed candidate, energy industry lobbyist Mike Carey; its negative mailers portray state Rep. Jeff LaRe as a mob boss who aligned with “anti-Trump forces.” Like Susan Wright who Trump endorsed in Texas (and like both Brown and Turner in Cleveland), Carey's campaign has released internal polling that put him in the lead, with his support doubling once voters are informed that Trump supports him.

“Donald Trump is the Republican Party in the 15th Congressional District,” Carey told Jewish Insider this month.

Unlike Wright, Carey has led the field in fundraising, and had a tenuous Trump connection before the race began: Trump adviser Corey Lewandowski is a friend of Carey's, and the candidate visited the White House as an advocate for the coal industry. In a statement this week, Trump urged voters to ignore other candidates who put pro-Trump imagery in their advertising but did not have his support.

“I don’t know them, and don’t even know who they are,” Trump said. “But I do know who Mike Carey is — I know a lot about him, and it is all good.”


… five days until primaries in Ohio’s 11th and 15th Congressional Districts 
… nine days until California Republicans vote on whether to endorse a recall candidate
… 47 days until California's recall election
… 96 days until elections in New Jersey and Virginia, and primaries in Florida’s 20th Congressional District