It’s not often high-profile, incumbent candidates fall behind in the political ad wars early on in their campaigns.
But that’s exactly what’s happened to GOP Sen. Marco Rubio. Since the spring, the Florida Republican’s TV and radio ad campaign has been far smaller than that of his presumed Democratic opponent, Rep. Val Demings, according to data provided by two sources tracking political advertising in the state.
It’s not a small disparity: Demings has outspent Rubio on ads by a greater than 2 to 1 ratio, the trackers show, even when including the help the incumbent has received from outside Republican and conservative groups. The difference is even greater in some vote-heavy areas, including Miami and Orlando, the data show.
The early ad onslaught from Demings is partly a function of the congresswoman’s prodigious fundraising, which has exceeded Rubio’s in 2022, and has helped her try and overcome Rubio’s inherent advantages in the race, say Democratic strategists.
And with Election Day in less than three months, and the general election set to formally begin after Tuesday’s primary, it’s complicating the Republican incumbent’s reelection bid in a race in which he’s still widely viewed as the favorite.
“Demings’ campaign team correctly assessed that nobody knows who she is,” said Steven Vancore, a Democratic pollster. “And if she runs a traditional campaign, that won’t be enough. So getting on the air early and defining the race and herself early is very smart.”
In total, Demings has spent about $11 million on over-the-air ads, according to the two ad trackers, compared to just under $5 million for Rubio and his allies.
How much each campaign has spent on digital ads is not as publicly clear, though the digital budget is usually dwarfed by the amount of money campaigns spend on ads that run on broadcast TV, cable, and radio.
Demings, a three-term congresswoman from Orlando, has long been the Democrats’ presumed nominee for Senate even though the race’s primary isn’t until Tuesday.
Rubio is seeking his third term in office, after easily winning his first reelection campaign in 2016.
Recent polls suggest he might face a tougher campaign this time around, although critics question the accuracy of those surveys. After a trio of surveys — including two commissioned by progressive or Democratic groups — showed Demings either tied or ahead of Rubio, a new poll released this week from the non-partisan Center Street PAC showed the Republican up 11 points, 52% to 41%, among likely voters.
Even if Demings is making the election more competitive, thanks in part to her ads, Republicans say they understand why Rubio has decided not to spend as much money on ads in the early stages of the race and remain confident he will win.
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“She is new statewide, she’s got to take the time and put the resources into trying to introduce herself to a state electorate that doesn’t know her,” said Todd Reid, a Republican strategist and former deputy chief of staff for the senator. “Senator Rubio is a known commodity, and he doesn’t have to do all that kind of early intro work.”
Demings herself has touted how her money already has helped raise her name recognition around the state.
“Tell somebody about this race. Tell people any contribution that they are willing to make, we will utilize those resources to get my message out around the state,” she said earlier this month in North Miami, at a roundtable with Haitian-American leaders, including members of the Haitian American Chamber of Commerce.
“When I started this race, I had about 33% name ID around the state. Marco Rubio is always at 95%. We’re at 70% name ID around the state right now. And that $30 average contribution has allowed me to go up on television much earlier than I normally would and introduce myself around the state and the voters are starting to turn.”
The spending disparity between the two campaigns, however, might actually underplay how many more voters in the state have seen ads from Demings than those from Rubio.
An array of GOP and conservative groups have run ads bolstering Rubio’s campaign, including Americans For Prosperity, and the Computer & Communications Industry Association. But independent groups, by law, have to pay more for their ads than do candidates, meaning they get less bang for their buck.
Demings’ campaign, meanwhile, has been the only major spender helping her candidacy, as major national Democratic groups — including the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee — concentrate their money in other political battlegrounds.
As a result, her money has gone further to reach voters. One political firm tracking ad spending in the state found that, taking the different sources of funding into account, Demings’ ads have been more than three times more visible to the public — even more than her 2-to-1 spending advantage would indicate.
Rubio, in conjunction with the National Republican Senatorial Committee, has spent about $3 million on ads, according to one ad tracker, with the rest of the spending coming from independent conservative groups and his super PAC, the Florida First Project.
Republicans supportive of Rubio said they expected that he and his allies would likely close the ad gap between now and November, noting that candidates usually start spending more money over the air after Labor Day. And once that happens, they said any advantage Demings once had will start to fade, especially as voters start to tune out political ads more generally.
“The truth is, though, they’re going to see so many ads out there for so many races, what are people truly going to be able to consume?” Reid said. “Or are they going to say, ‘I’m so sick of things that I’m not going to pay attention?’”
As of Aug. 3, Rubio had $15 million on hand, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission. Demings had just under $9 million, according to the commission.
The cash-on-hand edge could help Rubio — who had been stockpiling funds since the start of his six-year term in office — run more ads than Demings over the next 2 1/2 months, Republicans say, although they caution that Demings’ fundraising pace still will be hard for the incumbent senator to match.
Since 2021, Demings has raised $47 million, more than Rubio’s near-$37 million haul. Supporters say Demings — who started her ad campaign in mid-June, about a month before Rubio — still faces a difficult race. But the ad strategy might yet give her a key leg up, they say.
“It’s going to be tough sledding,” Vancore said. “But she’s doing everything right.”
Miami Herald Reporter Bianca Padro Ocasio contributed to this story.
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