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Where the magic is: The fundraising numbers that moved the Democratic primary

The dust is beginning to settle after the Democratic primary, and some numbers can help shed some light on how the races played out.

First things first: money.

In every state house race in the region, the better-funded campaigns came out on top.

Despite getting big checks from Democratic donor Sonjia Smith and two national political action committees, Del. Sally Hudson couldn’t keep up with state Sen. Creigh Deeds’ financial backing. According to the Virginia Public Access Project, as of June 8 Hudson’s campaign spent over $850,000, a daunting figure for a state senate race.

But Deeds spent more. Just over $1 million, with his biggest donors being state Sens. Scott Surovell and Mamie Locke’s candidate committees. He also received $36,000 from Virginia Realtors, a political action committee.

In House District 55, Kellen Squire spent nearly $200,000 of his donations. But he was still outspent by victor Amy Laufer to the tune of $30,000. Laufer’s biggest donation came from Emily’s List, a political action committee dedicated to getting pro-abortion women elected to office.

While spending in those two races was relatively close, House District 54 saw a very lopsided fundraising matchup. Katrina Callsen spent $120,000 more than both of her opponents combined. Nearly half of her total donations came from Smith.

One of Callsen’s opponents, Bellamy Brown, pointed to the huge gap in funding on his Facebook page. With a screenshot of the total spending, he wrote, “Don’t tell me there’s no magic there.”

Asked to clarify, Brown told The Daily Progress he meant that his campaign “achieved a greater return on investment.”

All told, Callsen spent $27.29 per vote, while Brown spent $5.49 and Dave Norris spent $5.05.

Money matters, but it alone does not decide races. A good ground game can also help a candidate get across the finish line.

Callsen’s team knocked on more than 15,000 doors during her campaign, likely outpacing Brown and Norris. Brown estimates that he knocked on upwards of 4,000 doors. Norris was unsure of his total, telling The Daily Progress that his team “definitely focused more on meet and greets as an outreach strategy.”

Naturally, a bigger team can cover more ground and knock on more doors. Financing helps with that, and may explain why Callsen’s campaign was able to canvass so many homes.

Laufer’s campaign did not respond when asked for its door-knocking total, but in an interview with The Daily Progress a week before the election, Laufer said, “I just found out from the caucus that I’m the number one candidate that has knocked on the number one amount of doors myself.”

In a Facebook post, Squire said his campaign knocked on 12,097 doors, in addition to making 6,367 phone calls and sending 7,485 personal letters.

Hudson told The Daily Progress she knocked on 40,000, but cautioned that, “doors aren’t where real persuasion happens.”

Instead, she said that her team’s organizing campaign was more centered around 90 neighborhood house parties, which over 1,500 people attended.

Digital messaging can have an impact too, although social media engagement is harder to quantify.

Hudson had almost 2,000 more followers than Deeds on Twitter, but 10,000 less on Facebook.

Squire had a 2,000-follower advantage over Laufer on Twitter, and no one in the 54th District race had a significant social media following.

But do those follower numbers and a candidate’s social media presence have any bearing on a race?

“My experience generally has been if you’re a candidate you don’t want to be too online. The online audience of Twitter is much more politically engaged than your average voter,” said J. Miles Coleman, media relations coordinator at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

In local races, where candidates have a smaller area to target, Coleman suggested candidates should meet people at coffee shops rather than tweet online.

“People like to say Twitter is not real life, and that’s absolutely true,” said Chaz Nuttercombe, director of CNalysis, a group that specializes in predicting state legislative elections.

“But if you’re talking about Democratic Primary, where it can be a little bit of real life is where you have a lot of liberal white people. Because that’s a lot of Twitter,” he said.

For that reason, Nuttercombe expected Laufer’s attacks on Squire to backfire. Anecdotally, he said he saw Laufer receiving criticism on Twitter and Facebook for mailers she released that questioned Squire’s commitment to abortion access. But if those people on social media were actually upset with Laufer, not many of them voted.

The number that matters more than any — whether it be doors knocked, money raised or Tweets sent — is the vote total. Laufer won by 40 points.


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