by Lachlan Markay
The runoff is a gold mine for politicians. And now that they can run Facebook ads in Georgia, they’re rushing for it
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) needs your help to keep the U.S. Senate in Republican hands. So blared a handful of Facebook ads that Cruz’s campaign committee purchased this month. But none of them were actually raising money for the Republican candidates in Georgia. Instead, every penny donated went directly to… Cruz.
The Cruz campaign bought 15 separate ads on Facebook over the past two weeks, each featuring a video of the senator dramatically hyping the need to hold two U.S. Senate seats in Georgia runoff contests.
“Gun-grabbing, tax hikes, open borders, and stacking the Supreme Court. That’s the radical Democrat agenda if they win the Georgia Senate elections,” Cruz declared.
He asked for $5 contributions to his new “Keep Georgia Red fund.” But Facebook users who clicked through to the online donation page—and read the fine print at the bottom—would see that the actual beneficiary was Cruz’s own campaign committee, not Sens. Kelly Loeffler or David Perdue, the two Republicans running for re-election in Georgia.
Cruz is just one of a number of elected officials of both parties using the competitive—and extremely expensive—Georgia runoff contests to raise money for themselves. Increasingly, those officials are doing so on Facebook, where a political ad ban instituted in late October was lifted this month, but only for ads in Georgia.
That’s led to a rash of Facebook ads invoking the Senate contests in the state on behalf of out-of-state political candidates. On some occasions, the ads don’t even mention the runoff contests, but are targeted at users in Georgia in an effort to exploit Facebook’s state-specific political advertising policy.
Facebook did not respond to questions about that apparent loophole. But the efforts by Cruz and others illustrates the difficulties the company has had in crafting a political ad policy that isn’t criticized as either too restrictive or too easy to exploit.
The social-media giant’s advertising ban, designed to limit misinformation related to the presidential election outcome, temporarily shut down a mammoth political fundraising tool around and after the election. When the company eased the ban this month for ads in Georgia, campaigns jumped at the chance to get back into the Facebook advertising game. Last month, the National Republican Senatorial Committee encouraged its members to use grassroots donor enthusiasm surrounding the runoffs to help build their own fundraising programs.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has led the way for his caucus. His campaign has been sending some text messages and running Georgia-focused Google ads linking to a page on the GOP fundraising platform WinRed that says donations will benefit McConnell’s own campaign committee.
According to a source familiar with the arrangement, McConnell’s Georgia-focused fundraising efforts have actually served to cover the cost of using his massive email and text messaging lists to solicit donations that are split between the senator and the two Republican Senate candidates in Georgia. A McConnell spokesperson said that his post-Election Day fundraising efforts, subsidized by his direct Georgia-focused fundraising, have brought in more than $3.4 million for Loeffler and Perdue.
These split fundraising efforts are a key mechanism to boost grassroots financial support for Senate candidates in Georgia, according to guidance published by WinRed. Some members of Congress have taken advantage of that strategy. Reps. Cathy McMorris Rogers (R-WA) and Ashley Hinson (R-IA), for instance, have both purchased Facebook ads this month linking to donation pages that split the proceeds evenly between their own campaign committees and those of Perdue and Loeffler.
Many, though, continue to direct donations purely to their own campaigns or political vehicles. And it’s not just Republicans getting in on the act. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), for instance, has run a pair of Facebook ads this month with urgent pleas to financially support Democratic Senate candidates in Georgia.
“If you want to take back the Senate and retire Mitch McConnell, the single most important thing you can do right now is donate to elect Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in Georgia,” the ads state. The ads link to a donation page that specifies that the funds will go not to Ossoff or Warnock, but to Gillibrand’s political action committee, Off the Sidelines PAC.
Gillibrand’s PAC largely exists to steer funds to other Democratic candidates, so it’s not inconceivable that some of the money raised through those ads will support Democrats in Georgia. Indeed, the PAC donated to both Ossoff and Warnock ahead of the general election. But by law, it can only give each of them $5,000 before the runoff contest in January, likely less than what the PAC is raising with appeals to the Peach State senate contests.
Then there are those who are trying to raise money off all the political activity in Georgia without even pretending to care about the runoffs.
Congressman-elect Madison Cawthorn (R-NC) purchased a handful of Facebook ads last week in which he pledged to use his new post in a fruitless and conspiratorial attempt to nullify the 2020 presidential election. “Donate below to join the fight and help save our American way of life!” it read. An additional five Cawthorn ads asked people to “defend freedom and defend Georgia!” But like all the others, they linked to Cawthorn’s own donation page. Cawthorn won’t even be sworn in until this weekend.
President Donald Trump himself has led the pack in using the Georgia Senate contests to raise money for his own political endeavors. His political team has been buying Google ads and sending out fundraising emails for weeks declaring the urgent need to hold the GOP Senate majority, and asking for contributions to his own political groups. But the fine print of those solicitations makes clear that a major chunk of the change will be going to Trump’s own committee and a smaller chunk to the Republican National Committee.
The tactic has spread even more widely since Facebook opened its political ads to Georgia-related appeals. Like Cruz, Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) has run a host of ads this month asking for donations on behalf of his Republican colleagues, Loeffler and Perdue.
“Democrats, with their radical agenda, seek to destroy our country. The center of that fight is now in Georgia. We must keep the Senate,” declare 10 Facebook ads run by the Lee campaign this month. “Join the fight by chipping in what you can.”
Ten Lee campaign ads run this month linked to the senator’s WinRed page. His office insists that the money is finding its way to the upcoming contests.
“Sen. Lee’s multiple Facebook campaigns have raised tens of thousands of dollars for Georgia’s runoff candidates,” a Lee spokesperson said in an email. “Some of those campaigns have offered donors the opportunity to donate to Sen. Lee but less than $100 has been raised in that manner.”
But the language on the WinRed page promoted in Lee’s recent Facebook ads is pretty clear: “Your contribution will benefit Friends of Mike Lee.”