In January 2023, Aaron Rouse was elected to the Virginia Senate with a 696 vote margin, flipping a seat from Republican to Democrat in a Special Election. Rouse’s victory expanded the precarious one-seat Democratic majority and solidified a pro-choice majority, creating a firewall against Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin’s attacks on women’s reproductive freedoms.
SBDigital was a proud partner on the campaign, providing mobilization and persuasion advertising online and through Connected TV.
Here are our takeaways from the race:
After a hard-fought campaign, Democratic incumbent Elaine Luria was defeated by State Senator Jen Kiggans in Virginia’s Second Congressional District, which includes Hampton Roads and the Eastern Shore. Kiggans was elected to Virginia’s 7th Senate District in 2019, defeating Democrat Cheryl Turpin by a narrow margin. Her election to Congress in November left her seat vacant, creating an opportunity for Virginia Democrats to flip the seat and expand their Democratic majority heading into an election year in 2023. One existing member of the 21-member Democratic Caucus had expressed a willingness to work with Governor Youngkin to limit reproductive freedoms, potentially leaving a tie-breaking vote on abortion issues to Republican Lt. Governor, Winsome Sears. It was crucial to elect another pro-choice Democrat.
While Democrats would maintain a slim edge despite the outcome, Republican Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears breaks ties in the chamber and one Democrat, state Sen. Joe Morrissey (Richmond), opposes abortion and has previously voiced support for a ban after 15 weeks.
– Dean Mirshahi, WRIC
Polling and the campaign’s gut feeling from the ground suggested that abortion rights were the #1 turnout and persuasion motivator in this election. We leaned into the issue. We framed the race as a referendum on abortion across all paid communication, earned media, and direct voter contact messaging.
We told voters: Abortion rights are on the line. YOU have the power to defend them by showing up to vote in this Special Election.
A combination of split-sampling in polling and A/B testing in our 2022 state legislative campaigns found that framing the issue of abortion around reproductive freedom – as opposed to the traditional framing of choice – was more effective. The success here underscores how important it is for progressives to reclaim “freedom” from conservative rhetoric, especially on this issue.
Virginia requires 45 days of early in-person voting and vote-by-mail, both of which began just a few days after Rouse became an official candidate. And for the first time, we were able to leverage the permanent absentee ballot program Democrats had passed with their trifecta in 2021 – voters who requested vote-by-mail ballots in the November election were given an option to add their name to the Permanent Absentee List, ensuring they are automatically mailed an absentee ballot in every election for which they are eligible to vote. 9,204 voters in the district opted to join the list in 2022, so they were automatically mailed ballots for this Special Election.
We targeted likely Democrats on this list, as well as other voters who requested ballots or had a history of absentee voting, with heavy absentee chase messaging. We served them eye-catching GIFs anchored to the issue of abortion, reminding them to fill out their ballots and return them as soon as possible.
This program paid dividends – Rouse overwhelmingly won the mail vote by a 3 to 1 margin. 6,045 of the vote-by-mail ballots came from the permanent absentee list, while just 232 ballots were specifically requested for this election.
Moving forward, we will work with all of our campaigns to engage, grow, and leverage the permanent absentee list in their districts.
The Rouse campaign had a very short period of time (a little over a month) for direct voter contact — building up a well-staffed field operation quickly and getting on the phones and doors to make positive IDs was a challenge.
Campaigns grow email lists and solicit donations online with clickable online advertisements, so why not use these same tactics to identify Rouse supporters and gather the same information from them that a canvasser would at their doorstep? We can and we should. Our advertisements received almost 30,000 clicks, taking voters to Rouse’s website where they could fill out a form and make a plan to vote, feeding that data directly to the Rouse campaign’s VoteBuilder.
Digital mobilization advertisements are an effective, efficient complement to traditional canvassing and phone-banking voter contact methods.