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Reform Allies Ready Ads Backing Vulnerables

Outside groups pushing health care reform are readying a multimillion-dollar ad blitz to defend about a dozen vulnerable House Democrats who helped pass a sweeping overhaul from attack ads launched by the measure’s opponents.

The largely labor-funded counterpunch comes after anti-reform groups surprised Democrats with a similarly well-funded and highly concentrated strike right after the House vote on Nov. 7. Democratic allies have already shelled out for a series of thank-you ads, but they found themselves spread comparatively thin across about 30 districts while reform opponents pounded away in about one-third as many districts.

Details of the new pro-reform campaign were still being ironed out Tuesday, but it will include a weeklong $750,000 television ad buy by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and Americans United for Change targeting 12 House Democrats; a $1 million offensive by the Service Employees International Union aimed at a partially overlapping list of seven Democrats; and a separate effort by AARP that the organization declined to detail.

Among those Democrats getting help: Indiana Reps. Baron Hill, Brad Ellsworth and Joe Donnelly; Arkansas Reps. Marion Berry and Vic Snyder; Virginia Reps. Gerry Connolly and Tom Perriello and Reps. Christopher Murphy (Conn.), Paul Hodes (N.H.), Mike Michaud (Maine), Earl Pomeroy (N.D.), Dina Titus (Nev.) — and the lone Republican to vote for reform, Rep. Anh “Joseph— Cao (La.). All the lawmakers hail from states with Senators considered potential swing votes on that chamber’s version of the overhaul — a fact opponents and supporters alike say is no accident.

The push to provide late-air cover for the marginal Democrats comes after their bruising at the hands of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has dumped a multimillion-dollar sum into ads, and the 60-Plus Association, a conservative seniors’ group that has reportedly committed $1.5 million to television ads and phone calls.

Officials with the pro-reform groups and in House Democratic leadership said they don’t expect to match the deep pockets of the chamber and others opposing the health care package over the long haul. For now, they said, they are at least trying to keep pace. And they acknowledged getting caught off-guard by the opposition’s bombardment.

“We were surprised by the scale,— said Richard Kirsch, national campaign manager for Health Care for America Now, an umbrella group that helped underwrite the first $1 million campaign of thank-you ads in the days following the vote. “This is a new phenomenon here, the intensity of it.—

House Democratic leaders learned that lesson the hard way over the summer when they were caught flat-footed in the aftermath of the climate change vote. Industry groups opposed to the bill excoriated vulnerable Democrats who lined up behind the measure, and unprepared environmental groups mounted no immediate counter-assault to provide them cover. As a result, Democratic leaders thought they would avoid a similar outcome in the fight following the health care bill’s passage by putting outside groups on notice beforehand. “We are coordinating with outside groups, as much as the law allows and permits,— one Democratic aide said.

But aides said reform supporters are nevertheless having trouble marshaling the resources of their opponents. “I wish I could criticize the groups for not doing anything,— another aide said, “but I think they are and just don’t have the money.—

After hearing reports of the opposition assault over the Veterans Day recess last week, House Democratic leadership discussed the situation during its Monday evening huddle without reaching a resolution, sources familiar with that session said.

The opposition push was threatening enough that at least one lawmaker caught in its cross hairs — Pomeroy — decided to take matters into his own hands: He tapped his campaign funds to cut an ad defending himself, fully a year before the 2010 elections. The Pomeroy spot points to a review by that disputes a 60-Plus ad accusing him of betraying seniors by supporting the health care bill.

“We’re transitioning from what has been an ad campaign about policy differences to one taking on much stronger political characteristics,— said Evan Tracey, president of Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks spending on political spots. “These ads are going to be an afterthought in November 2010, but they send a signal that this is what you can expect, because in most of these districts, the race is going to be a referendum on this vote.—

His group found that over the past month, opponents of reform have outspent supporters by a nearly 2-to-1 ratio, shelling out $23 million against the $12 million spent by advocates. The imbalance reverses the spending trend over the summer, when advocates claimed an edge in the air wars, Tracey said. To date, the two sides are almost dead even, with $63 million spent in favor of reform and $62 million spent opposing it.

But with the tide of outside spending turning, some Democrats sought a silver lining in the possibility that the opposition is overreaching. “Some of it is so outrageous that they may be overplaying their hand,— Titus said.

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