Ted Cruz bets big on Facebook
Sen. Ted Cruz isn’t up for reelection until 2024. But the Texas Republican has spent more on Facebook advertising over the past two months than all but one senator, an investment strategy that other lawmakers have used in recent cycles to help set the stage for presidential runs.
Cruz has plowed more than $240,000 into Facebook advertising since the platform started accepting political ads again two months ago. The only sitting senator who has spent more is Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), who forked over $335,000 for ads on the social media giant, according to a POLITICO analysis of Facebook advertising disclosures.
Republicans say the approach will help Cruz raise dollars online and cultivate and collect email addresses of small dollar donors. And while the investment could pay off in what’s likely to be an expensive Senate reelection bid — Cruz’s 2018 race against Beto O’Rourke was the second most expensive of the cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics — it also could serve the Texas Republican well if he decides to run for president again, which Cruz has said he hoped to do.
Politicians with an eye on the White House have built digital-heavy campaign fundraising apparatuses in the past. Vice President Kamala Harris spent heavily on online ads in early 2017 right after she was elected to the Senate. Back then, her team told HuffPost that she was taking advantage of small donors’ enthusiasm for contributing to Democrats after Trump’s election; and, indeed, the roughly $300,000 she spent on digital ads resulted in nearly $750,000 in small dollar donations. The email list she built through those ad campaigns served her well after she launched her presidential campaign two years later, when she raised millions right out of the gate.
Cruz’s outsize spending has, like Harris’, also led to a small-dollar surge. His campaign and allied groups raised $5.3 million in the first quarter of this year — 98 percent of which came in increments of $100 or less, according to Cruz’s team.
While Cruz has been focused on building up his small-dollar fundraising for years, the return on investment from his digital ads has increased in recent months, as Republicans eager to push back against President Joe Biden’s agenda have stepped up their giving, a Cruz adviser said.
“When tens of thousands of grassroots supporters are responding across the country to your message, you continue to increase spending to reach even more potential supporters,” the adviser wrote in an email to POLITICO.
Other potential Republican presidential candidates have spent a fraction of what Cruz has on Facebook in recent months. Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) spent about $72,000, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) spent about $44,000 and former Vice President Mike Pence’s Great America Committee PAC spent about $42,000. (Scott is up for reelection next year, while Hawley is not.)
Eric Wilson, a Republican digital strategist who’s worked with Republican Senate candidates, said the Cruz campaign’s spending didn’t strike him as preparation for another presidential run but as practical politics.
“This is what you need to run for reelection as a senator,” he said.
Wilson praised Cruz for his willingness to invest in building up a small-donor base years before he’s up for reelection rather than hoarding it to build up cash on hand — which he referred to as “the war chest myth.”
“I wish more senators and other elected officials would follow suit,” he said. “Because building a digital infrastructure for campaigning is a year-round endeavor.”
Cruz’s burst of ad spending comes as his ties with corporate America have frayed. Corporate PACs have pulled back their support for the Texas senator after he voted not to certify Biden’s victory in January. Just one corporate PAC gave to Cruz’s campaign in the first quarter of this year, according to a campaign finance disclosure. But a spokesperson for the PAC, the Lyondell Chemical Company PAC, said the donation was actually made back in September.
Even if corporate PACs were to give, Cruz has said he won’t accept their donations. He has blasted “woke” corporations and chief executives that have criticized Republicans in Georgia and other states for passing new voting laws. And he has vowed to stop taking their money.
“In my nine years in the Senate, I’ve received $2.6 million in contributions from corporate political-action committees,” he wrote in an op-ed last month in The Wall Street Journal. “Starting today, I no longer accept money from any corporate PAC. I urge my GOP colleagues at all levels to do the same.”
Cruz has echoed that message in his recent Facebook ads.
“I’m done with these woke corporations,” reads a Cruz ad that started running last week. “I’m never taking their money again. I won’t owe them a single thing and I’m going to spend every day stopping their radical agenda. But if I’m going to win, if I’m going to beat them, then I need patriots like you to step up and make a donation today!”
The strategy is reminiscent of many Democrats’ approach to fundraising during the Trump administration, as more and more Democratic candidates swore off corporate PAC contributions and relied on small-dollar donors to make up the difference.
The only lawmakers whose campaigns have spent more on Facebook ads than Cruz and Warnock between Feb. 4 and May 4 are Reps. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). While the data covers three months, Facebook didn’t start accepting political ads again until March 4, when it ended a ban on such ads it had imposed shortly before the November election in an effort to limit the spread of disinformation.
Two House candidates running against polarizing Republicans — Marcus Flowers, who’s running against Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), and Kerry Donovan, who’s challenging Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) — and Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who’s running for an open Senate seat, also outspent Cruz.
Porter and Ocasio-Cortez both reject corporate PAC donations. While Ocasio-Cortez’s district is deep blue, Porter represents a trending-blue swing district and could face a competitive race next year, depending on how her district’s lines are redrawn.
“Practically all of our campaign’s fundraising comes from engaging grassroots supporters through emails, reaching new supporters through Facebook ads, and the like — rather than traditional tactics like call time/fundraising events,” an Ocasio-Cortez spokesperson wrote in an email to POLITICO. “So that’s why our spending likely looks high relatively.”