The Cheap Seats: Senate Majority Determined in Inexpensive States

Posted September 11, 2013 at 5:00am

A Senate playing field (view ratings map) constructed almost entirely of small media markets has several implications for the candidates, campaign committees and outside groups in the most targeted states next year. Above all, it likely guarantees an extended campaign season.

“It means the poor, unfortunate people who live in those states will be subjected to much more ugliness,” as Curt Anderson, a Republican media consultant, put it.

Voters in Kentucky and Arkansas — home to both parties’ most vulnerable incumbent — have already become acquainted with their candidates for Senate, thanks to media campaigns launched a year and a half before the 2014 midterm elections. In Louisiana, the National Republican Senatorial Committee has already launched its first TV ad of the cycle, and it’s only a matter of time before an all-out ad war kicks off in dirt-cheap Alaska.

Of the 10 most competitive Senate races in 2014, only media markets covering parts of Georgia, North Carolina and Kentucky are among the 50 largest in the country, as ranked by Nielsen. States like New Hampshire, Michigan and Colorado would fit in that category, but at this point they are not among the most likely to flip control.

While they have different takes on whom it helps, both national parties are well aware of the effects of relatively inexpensive media markets on the battle for the Senate: The ads will likely start sooner, there will be a heavier concentration of ads at one time and the cacophony of voices in the televised conversation will undoubtedly be grander.

“There will probably be a lot of advertising by the spring that otherwise might not have started until late summer,” Anderson said.

Of course, the preponderance of relatively inexpensive markets doesn’t necessarily equate to campaign or outside-group money being spent wisely.

“You still have to determine whether it makes a difference or not,” said J.B. Poersch, a Democratic media consultant and strategist at Senate Majority PAC. “There’s been early TV on both sides, and I think you’ve got to have smart reasons to be there.”

Fewer Than a Dozen in Play

The situation undoubtedly will change, but for now the competitive playing field — where seats might be likely to flip from one party to the other — covers 11 states.

The Democrats’ most vulnerable seats are now held by retirees Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, Tim Johnson of South Dakota and Max Baucus of Montana, where as of late August the party was still in search of recruits. Close behind is the seat belonging to Mark Pryor of Arkansas, probably the most endangered incumbent.

Other Democratic senators expected to face stiff challenges include Mark Begich of Alaska, Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana and Kay Hagan of North Carolina. Then there is the seat of retiring Tom Harkin of Iowa, which the party is counting on Rep. Bruce Braley, a four-term House member, to hold.

For the GOP to gain control of the chamber, Republicans will need to hold their own turf as well. Even in favorable states, that won’t be easy.

Democrats are optimistic they can topple Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and pick up the seat of retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., whose exit has set off the most unpredictable Republican nomination fight in the country. Although Republicans have dominated the state in recent years, Michelle Nunn, daughter of former Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn, also is running and could upset the usual calculations. Georgia’s media markets include Atlanta, one of the 10 largest in the country.

To fully grasp the breadth of the political advertising assaults ahead in 2014, it’s instructive to look back at two Senate races that Democrats won in 2012 in states with small media markets. (Some of the top contests that year played out in expensive states such as Virginia, Florida and Ohio.)

Early that spring, Sen. Jon Tester of Montana launched the first television ad of his re-election campaign. Four days later, Heidi Heitkamp, then a former North Dakota attorney general who hadn’t been on a ballot in a dozen years, unveiled her initial foray on the airwaves. They were two of the earliest candidate ads of the cycle, and they were in two critical states for Democrats, who were in danger of losing their Senate majority. Thanks in part to the states’ smaller markets, both candidates rolled out at least a dozen more TV ads over the course of the election cycle — closer to two dozen for Tester. And they were never alone on the airwaves.

In North Dakota, Republican Rep. Rick Berg was on the air a month before Heitkamp. And a month after her March 30 debut, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee had dedicated its first independent-expenditure ad of the cycle in North Dakota. That spot aimed to counter an ad already aired by Crossroads GPS, a GOP-aligned outside group.

In Montana, the spending was even more intense. A year out from the election, an estimated $2 million already had been spent on advertising by outside groups, either against Tester or his Republican opponent, Rep. Denny Rehberg.

The small markets didn’t make the races less expensive, and similar contests in 2014 won’t be, either, say several media consultants and Senate campaign committee strategists.

Of the four major-party nominees in North Dakota and Montana, only Tester finished among the top 25 candidate spenders in the 2012 cycle, according to Political MoneyLine, a campaign finance database hosted by CQ Roll Call. However, party committees and outside groups spent $40 million on the two races combined, landing both among the 10 Senate races that received the most outside spending, data compiled by the Sunlight Foundation showed.

Implications for 2014

Cheap markets allow campaigns, national party committees and outside groups to afford significant ad buys earlier and stay on the air longer. But they also open up avenues for smaller independent groups whose less-robust war chests wouldn’t go nearly as far if they were forced to spend in major markets such as Chicago, Philadelphia or Washington, D.C.

Rob Jesmer, a Republican media consultant and former executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, says this is where the greatest effect may be felt in 2014. Not necessarily with the committees or well-funded outside groups, but on “the fringe groups” that raise only around $1 million and for whom cost is a big issue.

“So where they can’t make a difference in these bigger states,” Jesmer says, “they can make a difference in smaller states.”

Democratic media consultant Philip de Vellis, whose firm Putnam Partners produced Heitkamp’s ads, says cheap markets and more ads allow campaigns to deliver a message over a series of spots — not cram everything into one “kitchen sink” attack ad.

“You can really focus and tell a story,” de Vellis says. “They’re easier to watch and less grating on voters, because at least they feel they’re able to get a fuller picture and get some more context for where this comes from.”

Advantage: Who?

If smaller media markets offer an advantage to either party, Democrats say it’s theirs. Outside groups aligned with Republicans typically spend way more than their Democratic counterparts — it was 3-to-1 in the presidential race, according to the Sunlight Foundation. But in Montana and North Dakota combined, the NRSC and other groups aligned with Republicans were outspent by the DSCC and other groups aligned with Democrats by a net total of $1 million.

There’s only so much space. Although commercials might cost less in small media markets, the airtime available to political advertisers is much the same.

“Democrats were able to compete almost dollar for dollar, certainly down the stretch, because they were smaller, cheaper markets,” says Matt Canter, the deputy executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. But the overall campaign in these less-expensive states “was still extremely expensive,” he says.

Canter says Democrats also tended to offer a more nuanced argument in their ads from state to state, whereas Republicans tied Democrats to Obama almost everywhere. “When you’re running ads over an extended period of time, you’re failing to give voters any new information and they tune it out,” he says.

NRSC Executive Director Rob Collins prefaces his opinion with the observation that because Republicans are playing almost exclusively on offense, their money is headed in one direction no matter the size of the market.

“Whether it’s in New York or Montana, any investment from us is an investment in attacking Democrats and replacing them,” Collins says. Where the cheap markets could provide a benefit, he says, is with GOP challengers looking to catch up to Democratic incumbents in name recognition without having to expend a ton of resources.

“When you’re running an insurgent campaign, it’s a nice benefit that you don’t have to buy Philadelphia or New York,” Collins says. “If you’re allowed to elevate an insurgent challenger’s name ID for a relatively inexpensive price so that it’s equal, it’s really helpful.”

A version of this article originally appeared in the Sept. 2 edition of CQ Weekly.