House Hopefuls Gasp for Airtime in Special Election

Posted September 16, 2013 at 4:00pm

The five Democrats in the Massachusetts 5th District special election have a mutual adversary in next month’s primary: the Boston mayoral race.

A rare, high-profile contest for Beantown’s top job means the House candidates are fighting to stand out to voters who are fatigued by nearly two years of constant campaigning in the Bay State.

Officials expect the House contest to yield some of the lowest turnout in recent memory — in part because candidates have only had a few months to campaign for the decisive Oct. 15 primary. Democratic Sen. Edward J. Markey’s ascension from the House created the vacancy, the Bay State’s second special election of the year.

Further complicating candidates’ path to victory is a prohibitively expensive Boston media market. Television airwaves are already crowded with advertisements from a 12-candidate mayoral race, keeping the House hopefuls off the airwaves until recently.

These circumstances have left the five candidates to drum up interest in their race via retail politics. Their strategy is to solidify their respective geographic bases, then make headway into their competitors’ areas.

“In this race, you have to have a good field organization or you just aren’t going to win,” said Massachusetts Democratic consultant Mary Anne Marsh. “So the time, money and resources spent in building a grass-roots network, which is expensive up front, is the difference between winning and losing in this race.”

The 5th District field is made up of state and local officials with varying degrees of prominence: state Sens. William Brownsberger, Katherine Clark and Karen Spilka, state Rep. Carl Sciortino and Middlesex County sheriff Peter Koutoujian.

But the race will likely come down to a contest between Clark, Koutoujian and Spilka, according to Democratic consultants in the Bay State. In this heavily Democratic district located in the wealthy suburbs of Boston, the Democratic primary is almost guaranteed to pick the district’s next member of Congress.

The Clark, Koutoujian and Spilka campaigns touted their direct-mail programs, field organizations and grass-roots support in separate interviews with CQ Roll Call, citing these activities as proof that they are in good shape for the primary.

As the election draws near, however, Democratic consultants said that any candidate who can get on the airwaves will solidify front-runner status.

“If you can win the ground war and wage the air war, you are looking to be the next member of Congress,” Marsh said.

As of Sept. 13, Clark was the only one to reserve airtime for the race: approximately $60,000 in the Cambridge, Lexington, Malden, Newton, Revere and Woburn cable markets, according to a source with direct knowledge of the buy.

Sciortino plans to go up on air with his first ad on Wednesday, according to his campaign. His aides did not provide information on the size of the buy by press time Monday afternoon.

Aides from the other campaigns said they were focused on their ground game instead of television.

Spilka’s team said they have spent the past few months knocking on doors in her state Senate district, as well as working to chip into her competitions’ geographic bases.

“Karen has one-third of the district as her base; she is incredibly popular within her Senate district among the folks who know her,” Spilka campaign manager Eric Hyers said. “And it’s going to be a low-turnout affair; the candidate who mobilizes their base is going to win. So we have the clearest shot.”

Koutoujian’s camp has also been focused on its ground operation, according to his campaign manager, Chris Joyce. They have not ruled out purchasing television ad time, but Joyce cited 500 volunteers as an encouraging sign for Koutoujian’s odds.

“I think that the TV airwaves are going to be drowned out in a way, when you are a voter trying to see through the ads of a crowded mayor’s race,” Joyce said. “But a message that really gets through is when you have a neighbor on your doorstep who says, ‘I’m voting for Peter Koutoujian, here’s why you should, too.’”