The count of email fundraising blasts from Republican United States Senate candidate Tiffany Smiley has risen to five a day, used to deliver repetitive personal messages from Smiley, repeated claims of financial desperation, and lately to put an ultra MAGA face on the campaign.
At one moment, the campaign claims: “The Washington Senate race is now the #1 battleground race in the country. Regardless to say, all eyes are on us.” Later the same day, we hear despair from the Republican nominee (or her consultants): “I am trying hard to not let negativity creep in, but it’s incredibly difficult.”
The real reason for despair is that top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell is shoveling more than $60 million into unexpectedly difficult contests to hold onto seats of retiring Republican Senators Rob Portman and Pat Toomey in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Smiley has raised a lot of money but appears largely on her own.
The FiveThirtyEight oddsmakers now give Democrats a seventy percent chance of holding onto control of the Senate, and Smiley just a three percent chance of upsetting Murray. The real marquee races are in Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, Nevada, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Ohio.
Still, the shock-and-awe volume of Smiley emails provide a useful tool for examining fundraising tactics in the age of the Internet.
In days gone by, congressional staff or campaign volunteers would face a daylong or night-long task of getting out a mailing.
Against a backdrop of stale donuts and cold, congealed pizza, envelopes would be stuffed with dire forecasts if dollars were not donated.
Nowadays, a finger on the “send” button blasts out appeals.
Themes can vary by the hour, but basic techniques are interchangeable.
Provoke fear and alarm, warn of cartoon villain enemies, and convince donors that the smallest contribution can make a big difference. Email blasts do not test the mind. They want money, and to get you on the mailing list.
Over the years, Patty Murray emails — as crafted by fundraiser Tracy Newman — carry the inevitable kicker: “Fight Back.” The senator warns of Republicans plotting nefarious deeds and depicts the Republican poised to pour in millions if her fundraising falters. This year, the Murray message has been given resonance by the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham’s proposed nationwide ban on abortions after fifteen weeks..
Often, the bombardment deploys the candidate’s family and surrogates, all of whom display a magical ability to stay on message.
Jay Inslee, Trudi Inslee, and Tracy Newman have delivered appears in the hours before campaign reporting deadlines. At one point, copies of paintings by the governor were used as inducement to give.
Smiley’s campaign is email fundraising on steroids. Increasingly, in keeping with the MAGA culture, complaints are leveled against “political megadonors” (as if Republicans don’t have enough), “Biden’s business executives,” “corporate elites,” “political elites” “big city billionaires” and “elite coastal donors.”
The themes can be separated out:
Ersatz desperation: On Saturday night came a message, “We’re at risk of having to go off the air with Tiffany’s television ads. We need a huge fundraising blitz this afternoon in order to keep our ads up through the General Election.”
The appeal came as viewers watched Smiley television ads on Washington-Michigan State, Notre Dame-Cal and even Deep South football games telecast by ESPN and Fox. It’s never possible to get a fix on the campaign’s actual need.
On Saturday, the campaign was “$4,275 short of our critical goal.”
A night earlier, Smiley spoke of her “mid-month deadline” and how “we came up $427 short of our critical goal.”
Ersatz optimism: If you missed the movie “Twister,” the Smiley campaign offers a substitute. At one moment, it appeals for donors to “make history”. On Sunday morning, Smiley’s campaign wrote: “The latest polls in Washington show that my opponent and I will be neck and neck and I’m getting nervous. We’re barely trailing behind Murray but I need your support to cross the finish line.”
A few days earlier, the candidate was fessing up her deepest feelings: “There’s truly no one who believes in this campaign more than me, which is why it kills me to say I may have to call it quits.”
Ersatz populism: Ultra MAGA Republicans have embraced the notion they are persecuted, an argument driven home relentlessly by right wing media.
“They” are out to get us, Republicans wail. “They” is big tech companies, the “deep state” Washington, D.C., establishment, “Democratic elites”, “elite megadonors” and people living on the East and West Coasts.
The Smiley emails are tapping into several of these veins.
When it comes to complaining, Tiffany Smiley is to Washington politics what John McEnroe was to tennis. Her campaign has gone after the National Football League, after it raised objections to an ad called “Game Day” on rising costs of food popular at tailgate parties. “Woke NFL wants to cancel Tiffany’s ads,” said an appeal. The league was even given a nefarious goal: “They want to stop Tiffany’s ad from appearing on the airwaves and cancel her from winning in Washington.”
The press has figured in.
Smiley is getting rave coverage on FNC, most recently a loving Laura Ingraham interview. She’s been on CNN. But that doesn’t deter demonizing. “Watch Tiffany Smiley call out Washington media over blatant media bias,” said a recent appeal.
Smiley wanted the editors of The Herald of Everett to conduct a joint interview with the two Senate candidates. Murray declined, so The Herald arranged for separate interviews. Smiley used the episode to raise the familiar cry that the Fourth Estate is out to get her. Of course, Fox has given her exclusive coverage.
Richard Nixon used to define the lane-changing aspects of the standard Republican campaign technique. Move right during the primary campaign, feed red meat to rouse the party’s base. Swing back to the “center” come general election time, with themes keyed to independent swing voters.
The Smiley campaign makes a few nods to that approach, the first a promise that she is “pro-life,” but would not support a nationwide ban on abortions.
She uses another TV spot, keyed to school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic, to advocate for higher teacher salaries. Language questioning election integrity vanished from her website. Smiley has refused to offer specifics on key issues, notably in a revealing pre-Top Two election Seattle Times interview.
The endless emails deliver a different message, of a candidate tacking to the right, pursuing ultra MAGA Republican themes, and demonizing categories of Americans – even by where they live (e.g. “elite coastal donors”).
The Murray reelection campaign, in a canny move, began its television advertising in the spring, with the goal of defining Smiley before the challenger could get up on the air. It worked: Murray led Smiley by nineteen points last month.