Tiffany Smiley in an ad dubbed "Game Day"
Tiffany Smiley in an ad dubbed "Game Day"

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.

About the author

Joel Connelly is a Northwest Progressive Institute contributor who has reported on multiple presidential campaigns and from many national political conventions. During his career at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, he interviewed Presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and George H.W. Bush. He has covered Canada from Trudeau to Trudeau, written about the fiscal meltdown of the nuclear energy obsessed WPPSS consortium (pronounced "Whoops") and public lands battles dating back to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

Adjacent posts