Mark Pryor is under siege before the war has even really started. No fewer than three well-heeled outside groups are pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into the senator’s home state of Arkansas, a TV-ad barrage bent on telling Pryor’s constituents he’s just another Obamacare-backing, tax-hike-supporting national Democrat. Or, in the case of the Michael Bloomberg-backed Mayors Against Illegal Guns, that the two-term incumbent is too cowardly to vote for a measure to expand gun-sale background checks. It’s a two-front battle, and both sides are squeezing Pryor.
The fierce and already costly fighting 18 months before Election Day is partly a function of the conservative Democrat’s vulnerability—he’s often labeled the most endangered senator facing reelection—and partly a lever in a Republican effort to persuade GOP Rep. Tom Cotton to enter the race against Pryor, even as Bloomberg pounds him on the left. But the unusually early attacks also speak to a larger truth about the upcoming midterm elections: Republicans, Democrats, and their squadrons of allied outside groups are poised to flex their financial muscle now, in fierce and surprising ways.
It’s an odd dilemma for these cash-hungry organizations, most of which spend their days and nights begging for dollars. But the 2014 election has an unusual paucity of competitive races. The few campaigns primed for fierce competition will occur where the airwaves are cheap. Because how expensive is it, really, to buy prime-time advertising in Little Rock?
Candidates, party committees, and third-party groups such as American Crossroads won’t necessarily have more money than they did in previous midterm elections; the tally topped $3.6 billion in 2010, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. If anything, they might have—and need—less. But in 2014, a dollar will stretch further, and strategists will be forced to devise increasingly creative ways to spend it.
The dearth of spending targets is a result of two distinct but equally important dynamics. In the House, absent a political wave few see on the horizon, prognosticators anticipate the landscape will feature far fewer competitive races, because most congressional districts are solidly Republican or Democratic. Only 65 seats aren’t in a safe district, according to The Cook Political Report, and even many of those are close to secure for the incumbent party. According to a senior House GOP aide who tracks the electoral landscape, the House featured about 100 competitive races in 2010 and roughly 70 in 2012. This year, the aide expects only about 50 tough races.
The Senate, however, features far more intrigue. Republicans bent on reclaiming the majority are gunning for seven Democratic-held seats in red states and remain hopeful they can expand the map further. But it’s definitely a down-market lot: Take, for example, Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, South Dakota, or West Virginia. All are in play. None will break the bank. And big-ticket states such as California, Florida, and Ohio are not on the calendar this year.
So how will groups spend their money? Strategists point to two changes they think will happen this cycle: Money will be spent earlier, and a larger percentage than ever will go to media other than television. “You’re going to see a flood of spending,” said one Democratic strategist involved in planning for next year’s races. “It’s just going to come earlier and in different venues.”
The ad wars in Arkansas exemplify the kind of early fighting that could happen in other Senate contests and explain why many experts warn voters to expect TV ad campaigns to start as early as ever. Yet as on-air ads saturate a market, political operatives say they’ll look elsewhere to deploy their cash. That means larger investment in digital-only media, including outlets such as Pandora and Hulu, and in traditional ground-game operations such as voter identification and turnout.
In an increasingly fragmented media landscape, campaigns have already upped their spending on these kinds of efforts. The Obama campaign’s most memorable feature last year was its robust on-the-ground presence in battleground states. That process will accelerate next year, and it will mean a proliferation of micro-targeted ads more personally tailored than ever before.
“A lot of times, we don’t have funds to send multiple niche messages—maybe one or two in a congressional race,” said Liesl Hickey, executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee. “But I think this will give us an opportunity to give a multitude of messages to certain demographics. Now, instead of sending just one mailer, we can also have someone knock on a door and make several phone calls—focus directly on the message that type of voter responds to.”
Both sides will use the cash to retrofit campaigns’ political infrastructure, too, an investment Republicans hope will help them catch up to their tech-savvy Democratic counterparts. The NRCC plans to use the extra money for an “intense focus on data and analytics, to make sure our campaigns are data-driven.”
Some Republicans and Democrats remain skeptical of the predictions of overflowing money, once the campaigns begin. For one thing, the Senate map could still include expensive states such as Michigan and North Carolina, and possibly Colorado—places that eat into a budget quickly. And even if the House map has shrunk from the old days, many of the races are in uber-expensive media markets near cities such as Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia.
Some operatives are also predicting, even looking forward to, less money being spent overall. “Frankly, for a lot of these groups, if they don’t have to spend the money they did in 2010 and 2012, it would be somewhat of a relief,” said Jonathan Collegio, spokesman for right-leaning American Crossroads.
That possibility isn’t going to keep Crossroads, similar groups, and the parties from holding their hands out, however. Not with the Senate up for grabs and the GOP determined to keep its grip on the House. In politics, there has yet be such a thing as having too much.
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