Why Are Outside Groups Spending Millions So Early?

Senator Ron Johnson, R-Wis., speaks against the health carelaw outside the Supreme Court.  
National Journal
Scott Bland
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Scott Bland
Aug. 27, 2013, 3:30 p.m.

The League of Con­ser­va­tion Voters is not spend­ing its sum­mer con­serving cash.

More than 14 months ahead of the 2014 elec­tions, the in­flu­en­tial en­vir­on­ment­al group is spend­ing $2 mil­lion to air tele­vi­sion ads at­tack­ing four Re­pub­lic­ans as an­ti­science for their po­s­i­tions on cli­mate change. Just three years ago, that would have been more than one-third of LCV’s total 2010 elec­tion budget. One of its tar­gets, Sen. Ron John­son, R-Wis., won’t even be on the bal­lot un­til 2016.

The su­per­charged — and su­per early — ad­vocacy is em­blem­at­ic of pres­sure groups’ think­ing cre­at­ively about how they spend be­cause there is now so much oth­er spend­ing to com­pete with. Voters are less likely to no­tice one more ad jsut be­fore an elec­tion, with so much money and ad­vert­ising sat­ur­at­ing TV mar­kets, and PACs get less re­turn for their money. That’s also true in the most lit­er­al sense: The growth of cam­paign spend­ing right be­fore the elec­tion caused TV ad­vert­ising rates to double or even triple in some mar­kets in 2012.

So the League of Con­ser­va­tion Voters is filling the air­waves dur­ing what was once the sleepy sum­mer month of Au­gust.

“We’re ob­vi­ously not try­ing to de­feat Ron John­son right now,” said Nav­in Nayak, LCV’s seni­or vice pres­id­ent for cam­paigns. The group is also air­ing com­mer­cials in the dis­tricts of GOP Reps. Dan Ben­ishek of Michigan, Mike Coff­man of Col­or­ado, and Rod­ney Dav­is of Illinois. “A lot of what we’re try­ing to do, both on the elec­tion side and in this kind of cam­paign, is to demon­strate the polit­ic­al sa­li­ency of our is­sues…. We feel con­fid­ent that when con­stitu­ents find out their mem­bers are cli­mate den­iers, they’ll take a hit at home.”

Of course, LCV is able to do this only be­cause its own budget is big­ger than ever. The group spent less than $5.4 mil­lion in the 2010 elec­tion cycle, ac­cord­ing to totals col­lec­ted by the Cen­ter for Re­spons­ive Polit­ics. Last year, it boos­ted its spend­ing above $14 mil­lion.

LCV isn’t alone in spend­ing more soon­er. A full-scale ad­vert­ising war has already broken out in Ken­tucky, where Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell is run­ning for reelec­tion in 2014, and out­side groups on both sides have already dropped more than $1 mil­lion. Two con­ser­vat­ive groups have spent over a half-mil­lion dol­lars in Arkan­sas beat­ing up Demo­crat­ic Sen. Mark Pry­or be­fore 2014, too.

For LCV’s pur­poses, cli­mate change is not ne­ces­sar­ily a mes­sage that would im­me­di­ately break through in the fren­zied blood­baths of late elec­tion-year com­mer­cial breaks. But if the en­vir­on­ment­al group can es­tab­lish the is­sue now, it can come back to the cli­mate theme in 2014 with a found­a­tion already laid if tar­geted mem­bers don’t change their views.

That’s es­pe­cially true since the growth in avail­able cam­paign cash means that spend­ing money isn’t ne­ces­sar­ily a zero-sum de­cision. LCV’s $2 mil­lion ex­pendit­ure doesn’t take that money away from cam­paigns next fall if it en­er­gizes the group’s donor base, Nayak said, point­ing to the group’s $1.3 mil­lion in spend­ing to elect Demo­crat­ic Sen. Ed­ward Mar­key in Mas­sachu­setts earli­er this year. LCV de­cided to spend big des­pite the state’s blue hue and the pro-Mar­key forces’ money ad­vant­age.

“Donors wanted to stand with him,” Nayak said. “Yes, it’s Mas­sachu­setts. But more donors un­der­stand that we have to play to make the case for why people should stand with us.”

Like­wise, if the money the Club for Growth and the Sen­ate Con­ser­vat­ives Fund spent against Pry­or in any way helped con­vince Arkan­sas Rep. Tom Cot­ton that the race was win­nable, that early money is an in­vest­ment in 2014, not be­ing wasted in 2013. And as more money floods the polit­ic­al land­scape, groups are spread­ing it around long be­fore the elec­tion to gen­er­ate more im­pact.

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