Why You’re Already Tired of 2014

Senators fighting for their lives are already in midsummer form — but can they keep up the pace?

National Journal
Scott Bland
April 10, 2014, 5 p.m.

Just as Christ­mas ad­vert­ising has spilled in­to the pre-Thanks­giv­ing peri­od, Hal­loween dis­plays creep in­to stores by Au­gust, and East­er candy hits shelves be­fore Valentine’s Day chocol­ates get some time to them­selves, the folks who sell polit­ic­al can­did­ates are push­ing their products earli­er than ever.

Already, red-state view­ers have seen a sig­ni­fic­ant num­ber of TV ads from en­dangered Demo­crat­ic Sens. Mark Pry­or, Mark Be­gich, and Mary Landrieu, none of whom have primary chal­lenges on the ho­ri­zon. Demo­crat­ic Rep. Gary Peters, run­ning for the Sen­ate in Michigan, star­ted at the end of March. Michelle Nunn, the pre­sumptive Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee for Geor­gia’s open Sen­ate seat, just joined them on the air­waves. “Com­pared to 2010, it is very early for can­did­ates to be on the air to such a de­gree by this point,” said Eliza­beth Wil­ner, the seni­or vice pres­id­ent of Kantar Me­dia Ad In­tel­li­gence.

Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell beat them all off the start­ing line early last year, be­fore he had an op­pon­ent from either party. Faced with low pop­ular­ity rat­ings and need­ling from Demo­crat­ic agit­at­ors, but blessed with abund­ant cash re­serves, the Ken­tucki­an’s reelec­tion cam­paign star­ted air­ing TV ads in March 2013, more than a year be­fore the Re­pub­lic­an primary and 601 days be­fore Elec­tion Day. Some fea­tured Mc­Con­nell’s wife, former Labor Sec­ret­ary Elaine Chao, speak­ing of his love for his state, while oth­ers in­toned against Mc­Con­nell’s favored ad­versary, Pres­id­ent Obama.

The ex­plo­sion of spend­ing by polit­ic­al non­profits, su­per PACs, and oth­er out­side groups in re­cent elec­tions reached ca­co­phon­ous levels by the fi­nal weeks, leav­ing some strategists think­ing they would be bet­ter off put­ting some of that money to use at earli­er, non­tra­di­tion­al points on the cal­en­dar. As a res­ult, out­side polit­ic­al ad­vert­ising in 2013 and early 2014 was more in­tense than ever, led by the con­ser­vat­ive non­profit Amer­ic­ans for Prosper­ity’s mil­lions. AFP’s ad binge, in par­tic­u­lar, forced Demo­crat­ic cam­paigns to make an early judg­ment that there was no point in con­serving re­sources the tra­di­tion­al way.

“A few cycles ago, some im­port­ant people in Wash­ing­ton real­ized that a lot of these races were over by the time Demo­crats put their first ad up,” said Ben Chao, a Demo­crat­ic ad-maker. “Voters are pay­ing at­ten­tion much earli­er than ever, and, more im­port­antly, they’re mak­ing up their minds much earli­er.”

That was the situ­ation Pry­or’s cam­paign faced in Arkan­sas when he was the un­lucky tar­get of the first at­tack ads of 2014 — in Feb­ru­ary 2013. The Club for Growth and the Sen­ate Con­ser­vat­ives Fund dir­ec­ted more than $500,000 worth of TV and dir­ect-mail at­tacks at Pry­or in the winter and spring. With the un­answered at­tacks start­ing to bruise, Pry­or’s cam­paign joined his foes on TV with ads tout­ing his mod­er­ate and pop­u­list bona fides, along with some hit­ting his less­er-known fu­ture Re­pub­lic­an op­pon­ent, fresh­man Rep. Tom Cot­ton.

Pry­or still faces a deathly dif­fi­cult au­tumn race in a state Mitt Rom­ney car­ried by 23 per­cent­age points in 2012. But he hasn’t lost yet, something that looked like a real pos­sib­il­ity to people watch­ing the race in its early days. As The Cook Polit­ic­al Re­port wrote in March, “Ru­mors of his de­mise might be pre­ma­ture.”

“We feel our early ads and ef­forts to edu­cate folks about Con­gress­man Cot­ton’s re­cord went a long way to­ward mak­ing sure this race con­tin­ues to be com­pet­it­ive,” a Pry­or spokes­man said.

But en­ga­ging in ad­vert­ising to in­flu­ence that de­cision-mak­ing is ex­pens­ive, and the costs are more dif­fi­cult for cam­paigns to re­coup than they are for out­side groups that can raise a mil­lion dol­lars with a single check. As third parties such as Amer­ic­ans for Prosper­ity spend to spread their mes­sage, they have also squeezed their op­pon­ents fin­an­cially. In com­ments to donors and the press, Sen­ate Demo­crats have clamored for more money as the out­side spend­ing against them climbed.

“Amer­ic­ans for Prosper­ity has been very crafty,” Wil­ner said. “They’re for­cing a num­ber of Demo­crat­ic in­cum­bents on the air be­fore they want to. Money is not an is­sue for AFP, but for every in­cum­bent they force on the air, it is an is­sue.”

Sen­ate Demo­crats’ hefty cam­paign ac­counts should be a source of strength. But the glut of early ad­vert­ising — and the rest of the quick-start cam­paign­ing that those TV ads rep­res­ent — has pro­duced some drag on that front. Be­gich’s April fun­drais­ing dis­clos­ure re­vealed that he had already spent all the money he raised in the first three months of 2014. The $3 mil­lion Pry­or’s cam­paign had already spent by the end of 2013 al­lowed his op­pon­ent to pull closer to him, in fin­an­cial terms, than most oth­er Re­pub­lic­an chal­lengers at this stage.

That’s why can­did­ate ad­vert­ising has been mostly tar­geted at this early stage, rather than un­leashed at sat­ur­a­tion levels. Pry­or’s cam­paign points out that after its early ad­vert­ising spree in the middle of last year, the in­cum­bent has largely stayed off the air­waves. His strategists felt com­fort­able that the ba­sic mes­sage they had already in­tro­duced on TV was still res­on­at­ing with voters, even as his out­side-group ant­ag­on­ists re­mained act­ive. Demo­crats point to Arkan­sas as evid­ence that they’ve been able to keep up — barely — in this earli­er-than-ever bid for voters’ ap­prov­al.

“Busi­nesses need to cater to their cus­tom­ers,” Chao said. “We need to cater to the way voters are mak­ing their de­cisions.”

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