POLITICAL ADVERTISING CHASES ‘TOSS-UP’ RACES
Could Montana become the next South Dakota?
South Dakota was the mouse that roared in 2004. The two political parties and outside groups spent $36 million in the U.S. Senate race between Democratic incumbent Tom Daschle and ultimate GOP victor John Thune. It was the most expensive congressional race of the year. With much of the money going into TV spots, it amounted to a gold rush for station owners like Young Broadcasting and Duhamel Broadcasting.
In the wake of the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal and the president’s drooping poll numbers, Democrats are smelling blood. In Montana, they’ve targeted Republican Sen. Conrad Burns, who was a major recipient of Abramoff’s handouts, and are prepared to spend big to replace him. The Republicans are as determined to return Burns to Washington.
This means a potential bonanza for Big Sky TV owners like Cordillera Communications and Max Media.
“You never know what’s going to happen. We do think it’s going to be a pretty active year with the Senate race,” says Monty Wallis, general manager of Cordillera’s KTVQ Billings.
But it’s not just small states in play. In fact, TV stations in states of all sizes are in position to reap a windfall this year from the perfect storm of Republican weakness, open governorships and the traditional six-year slump for the party in power. A third of the thirty-three Senate races may turn into real battles. And more than two-thirds of the 36 governor races this year may be competitive either due to vacancies—as in New York—or incumbent weaknesses—as in California where Ah-nold-weary voters have figured out that catch phrases like “Hasta La Vista, Baby” are no substitute for real governing.
The University of Virginia’s Center for Politics identifies eight gubernatorial races and four senate races as “toss ups,” which means they may generate particularly heavy ad spending. The “toss-up” states: Alaska, Alabama, Arkansas, California, Florida, Iowa, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island.
“The party competition is going to be more intense this year for a combination of reasons,” says Larry Sabato, a government professor and director of the Center for Politics. “There’s the six-year itch element that frequently sees the party out of power gaining a substantial number of seats. It’s the drift of the year that really matters. If this year starts to tilt heavily to Democrats, a lot of races not competitive in the first half of the year will become competitive during the general election period.”
And vice versa if the Republicans rebound.
However, not every broadcaster is sitting pretty.
“It’s always about what political races are going to be contested in markets [where] you operate,” says Belo Corp. spokesman Carey Hendrickson: “We don’t expect spending to be as high” as the last off-year election.
That’s because Belo and others reaped a bounty in the 2002 Texas governor’s race in which Democratic challenger Tony Sanchez spent millions of his own money in a losing cause.
But you never know. Texas’s four-way governor’s race has a wacky element: Country singer-cum-mystery writer “Kinky” Friedman has won surprising support for his independent candidacy.
Celebrities always help. In Pennsylvania, a legislative pay raise has shaken Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell and a local icon—Pittsburgh Steeler Hall of Famer Lynn Swann—is running against him as a Republican.
It could be Christmas in October for Keystone State stations because Democrats will spend millions to oust GOP Sen. Rick Santorum and replace him with State Treasurer Bob Casey.
Ask me, however, in what state I would like to own a station and, unquestionably, my answer is Ohio. A scandal has complicated the Republicans’ attempt to hold an open governor’s seat and incumbent GOP Sen. Mike DeWine is high on the Democrats’ hit list.
And don’t forget ballot initiatives. The pricing of initiative advertising is not regulated by the FCC, says Sue Johenning, executive vice president/director of local broadcast for Initiative Media. “Therefore, they are a huge source of revenue for stations.”
Another factor is the McCain-Feingold campaign finance rules, which will apply for the first time in an off-year election. Third-party interest groups can’t advertise within 60 days of the election. That could result in viewers suffering through nasty attack spots even earlier than usual.
And there are other reasons the TV campaign season is likely to be a lengthy one.
“One of the things they may have learned from the presidential race was candidates have to get on the air earlier to define themselves,” says Stephen Medvic, a professor at Franklin & Marshall University and author of Lights, Camera, Campaign!: Media, Politics and Political Advertising. He notes how Democrat John Kerry never quite rebounded from the early “Swift Boat” ads targeting his Vietnam record.
Which broadcasters are poised to gain the most from the 2006 political road map? We’ll review those prospects next week.
WHERE THE MONEY IS IN ’06
States where campaigning and political ad spending may be heavy (“toss-up” races in bold face):
Governor: Alaska, Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Wisconsin
Senate: Arizona, Florida, Maryland, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Washington
Source: Center for Politics, University of Virginia (www.centerforpolitics.org)