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Expect Campaign Advertisements Earlier Than Ever

Congressional campaign ad wars in the summer? It could happen in 2014.

Without a presidential race dominating the airwaves, House and Senate races will be on the receiving end of an unprecedented deluge of political spending this midterm cycle. And with only a few dozen competitive House districts to focus their spend, many political operatives predict the television ad wars will start earlier than ever.

Until recently, the parties and most candidates did not air major television advertisement campaigns until around Labor Day — when television networks returned to prime-time programs. Last cycle, party committees aired some five-figure and small six-figure buys during the August before the elections, but the serious seven-figure spending came after Labor Day.

This cycle, political operatives predicted parties, candidates and groups would move up the television ad calendar a few more weeks to early or mid-August — as in one year from now.

“The tactics and strategies are certainly going to have to evolve because there’s only so much money you can spend between Oct. 1 and Election Day,” said Dan Conston, a spokesman for the Congressional Leadership Fund, a Republican House super PAC. “And it’s only so effective when there are five competing messages at the same time.”

Last cycle shattered political spending records, thanks to a presidential campaign and super PACs. Few operatives predict 2014 will break that advertisement spending record because of the absence of a national contest.

But the intensity will increase on competitive congressional races — mostly because there aren’t that many of them. Operatives say the number of truly competitive House races will be relatively small — maybe just a couple of dozen. Maybe eight Senate races will see major funds flood the state from parties and outside groups.

As a result, campaigns, party committees and super PACs are adjusting tactics to enter the fray earlier than every in a midterm cycle. They claim four arguments to going on the air in August:

• Television ad markets are less expensive in August, before political spending and prime time drives up the market rate for points in September and October.

• Early advertisements allow candidates to define themselves and their opponents before voters get tired of the television clutter.

• More people are casting their ballots weeks ahead of Election Day thanks to early voting. Campaigns don’t have two months of television time before Election Day if voters make their choice in early October.

• Television viewership is shifting away from traditional broadcast prime time. For example, a season finale of “The Bachelor” in August could bring in ratings that rival a network season premiere in September.

Super PACs and outside spending will only add to the airwaves clutter next fall as they shift their means to buy airtime for congressional races.

“October is a very cluttered market. Your money is not going very far,” a GOP media buyer said. “As an industry, we all recognize that this an issue that’s been exacerbated by Citizens United.”

In most cases, candidates must contend with limited financial resources. But sources at various super PACs shrugged off monetary limitations. Some super PAC operatives said it’s possible they will hit the airwaves long before August.

The same super PAC players also have plans to spend on television late in the season. Their last-minute spots often come as much-needed help for cash-strapped campaigns — if it arrives.

“It’s a bit like a chess game,” said Andy Stone, a spokesman for the House Majority PAC, a Democratic super PAC. “Certainly, every campaign has to be aware of the environment they are operating, but ultimately, they are the ones in control of their own message.”

There are no guarantees super PACs will spend until the ad runs on television, cautioned Republican media consultant Erik Potholm.

“It’s a dangerous game because groups can change their mind based on polling and cancel an order,” Potholm said.

That could create a worst-case scenario for campaign. If they front load their ad buys in August, campaigns could be poor by October — without any super PAC help in sight.

For that reason and others, Democratic media buyer Ondine Fortune emphasized that only some campaigns should start television earlier in the cycle. Incumbents and challengers start at completely different name identification baselines.

“If you’re going to go on early then you better have enough money to stay on or at least match your opponent  . . .  in October,” she said.