HELENA – This is the first of a two-part series on campaign spending in Montana’s U.S. Senate race.
In the past two-and-a-half months, more than 1,200 digital ads on Facebook have mentioned Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester – and it’s no secret who paid for these ads and who they targeted.
In an effort to increase “transparency” about Facebook’s’ political content, the social-media giant has set up its own website allowing anyone to track political ads, their cost, who paid for it, and who the ad is targeting.
Plug in a candidate’s name, and all ads on Facebook mentioning his or her name, since early May, come up – along with a link on each one titled “see ad performance,” which provides its cost and targeting data.
Tester, who’s running for re-election, has purchased hundreds of ads on Facebook, pitching himself and often making fundraising appeals.
In one ad early this week, Tester stood in front of equipment on his Big Sandy farm and said “if you have any spare change sitting around in your dresser, we could utilize it on the campaign.
“We’ve seen the kind of attacks they’ve hit us with, and we’ve got to be able to respond with the truth, and your money helps.”
His campaign also has ads this week on Facebook, attacking his Republican rival, Matt Rosendale – and so have some of Tester’s political allies, such as the League of Conservation Voters and a group called End Citizens United.
On the flip side, some outside groups have bought Facebook ads attacking Tester, including Restoration PAC, a group financed by Illinois billionaire Richard Uihlein, and One Nation, a group promoting the confirmation of U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
Rosendale, the state’s insurance commissioner, has been using Facebook as well, including a recent ad that cites his support for the agenda of President Donald Trump.
Rosendale’s campaign told MTN News this week it is using “every tool at our disposal to talk to as many voters as possible, including targeted digital ads.”
The Tester campaign said it uses Facebook ads “to engage with thousands of Montanans every day,” and called it “an important tool to get out our message.”
While TV ads are still the big-money item in a statewide campaign’s ad strategy, campaigns say they’re using targeted digital advertising more and more.
Facebook’s ad-tracking website offers a glimpse into how its ads can be targeted to a specific audience, by gender and location.
Late last month, the Tester campaign produced an ad titled “Life in Rural Montana,” featuring Tester and his wife, Sharla, sitting at a kitchen table in their Big Sandy farmhouse, talking about life on the farm.
The ad targeted only women in Montana. It was up for a few days, cost less than $100 and reached 5,000 to 10,000 people, according to Facebook.
The Restoration PAC anti-Tester ad in mid-July took after Tester for his actions that helped sink the nomination of Ronnie Jackson as Veterans Affairs secretary in May. It targeted about 60 percent women and 40 percent men – all in Montana.
A recent Tester fundraising appeal, however, went out to targeted Facebook users in every state – and the top states targeted were California, Montana, Oregon, Texas and Washington, in that order.
A Rosendale Facebook ad that ran on the day President Trump visited Great Falls touted Rosendale’s support for “President Trump’s America-First Agenda,” targeting men and women about equally – and mostly in Montana. However, it also went out to people in nearly every other state.
Facebook said the ad cost between $500 and $1,000 and reached 10,000 and 50,000 people.
Political consultants told MTN News that TV ads are still the bread-and-butter in most big Montana campaigns – but that in a race that may come down to a few thousands votes, the influence of Facebook ads could help make the difference between winning and losing.
Next: Which outside groups are spending on Montana’s U.S. Senate race, and how much? And what does this spending say about the status of the race?
Reporting by Mike Dennison for MTN News