Trump’s legal drama is nowhere in the campaign ad wars

While Donald Trump’s legal travails have made headlines for two months now, the courtroom drama kicked off by the FBI’s Mar-a-Lago search is barely registering in one important place: battleground races this fall.

Out of more than 5,800 distinct TV and digital ads since the Aug. 8 search of the former president’s Florida property, fewer than 20 mentioned Mar-a-Lago or the Justice Department, according to a POLITICO analysis of ad transcripts maintained by AdImpact. Abortion and the economy-related ads are dominating in swing districts, according to the advertising data.

The statistics highlights an essential reality about Trump’s legal troubles. For as much as the multiple investigations closing in on the former president rivet avid consumers of political news, campaigns aren’t yet using it in competitive races around the country. Instead, both parties are harnessing it for appeals to their respective bases.

“Obviously there are a lot of concerns with the president’s conduct. But this election is about putting people over politics, about what we’ve achieved for the American people and what’s left to do, and the Republicans’ obsession with power and failure to put forward a plan,” Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (DN.Y.), who chairs the House Democrats’ campaign arm, said in a brief interview.

The handful of ads that do mention Trump’s legal quagmire come largely from Republicans and conservative outside groups criticizing what they see as DOJ overreach, not from vulnerable Republicans in swing seats.

“Biden’s FBI raids Pres. Trump’s home. This is unprecedented!,” read an Aug. 10 advertisements on Google from the Republican National Committee that doubled as a fundraising appeal.

Democrats, for their part, are mostly sticking to ads about abortion — which remains the most frequently mentioned issue several months after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade — along with other kitchen-table issues, such as jobs and the economy. A few dozen ads that ran since the Mar-a-Lago search reference the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and Trump’s attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. A recent ad from Wisconsin Democrat Brad Pfaff criticized his Republican opponent Derrick Van Orden for being at the Capitol on Jan. 6, for example.

But the former president’s more recent legal woes rank near the bottom of campaign-ad themes: There were even more Democratic ads that mention bipartisanship than the DOJ probe of Trump.

The limited Democratic ads that have mentioned his legal struggles appear largely targeted at list-building and attracting donations. The farthest-reaching Democratic ad that touched on the matter came from the party’s Senate campaign arm and started running on Sep. 15. It asked social media users if Trump should “be held accountable” and presented a laundry list of the legal drama surrounding the former president, costing just over $20,000.

Beyond the ad-war silence over Trump’s handling of classified documents, neither Republicans nor Democrats have spent on recent messaging related to New York Attorney General Tish James’ recent lawsuit against Trump and his adult children, accusing them of fraudulent financial practices at the former president’s businesses.

It’s just not something resonating in swing districts, according to one vulnerable House Democrat.

“While it may be red meat in some areas, it is not red meat in a Trump-voting district,” said Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), who’s running for reelection in a redrawn district won by Trump in 2016 and Biden narrowly in 2020. “And I don’t think we should approach it as a political issue. I know Washington talks about it that way.”

Republican ads mentioning the FBI search of Trump’s home have mostly been digital ads at recruitment for email lists or fundraising — or TV ads in late primary races, looking to build on outrage among a portion of the Republican base. General-election ads, by contrast, are more likely to highlight issues such as inflation or crime.

One example of the base-building ad strategy that has employed DOJ’s Trump investigation: Ahead of the Aug. 23 Oklahoma primary runoff, the Republican super PAC Fund for a Working Congress invoked the “shameful” FBI search in an ad that aired on both broadcast and cable TV, arguing that the GOP candidate Josh Brecheen had not supported Trump. (Brecheen won the runoff anyway and is the heavy favorite in November in a deep-red district.)

A few GOP incumbents have also run ads mentioning the FBI’s search, though not those in competitive districts. Republican lawmakers are preparing a barrage of DOJ-related investigations next year, and while it may not come up in battleground races, they still see it as a major issue for them heading into the election.

“I talk about it every day,” completed Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a staunch Trump ally running for reelection in a solidly Republican district.

Jordan ran Facebook ads about the Mar-a-Lago search from early August through September, with one saying Biden “weaponizing the FBI against his opposition is terrifying for every American patriot” and previewing how Republicans’ approach could differ if they take back the House in November.

“This is the work of the most politicized DOJ in American history and they need to be held accountable,” read one ad that generated more than 170,000 social media views. “The only way for that to happen is a MAGA Majority.”

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