Kentuckians seeking to appreciate the re-election threat facing Republican U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell need only turn on their television sets.
In less than 20 days, one recent ad defending the Senate minority leader played almost 200 times in Louisville, airing during shows ranging from the local news to “Hawaii Five-0.”
Kentucky’s most-populous city ranks first in the nation for broadcast television ads run in U.S. Senate campaigns this year, according to New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG data. The activity provides a windfall to Kentucky stations and a window into the challenges confronting McConnell -- from factions in his own party as well as from Democrats -- to win a sixth term.
“We expect it to be at least as good as the record year that we had in 2008 because of this one race,” said Marti Hazel, sales director at WDRB-TV, the Fox affiliate in Louisville, in a reference to McConnell’s last election.
More than 3,700 Senate-related TV ads ran in Louisville at an estimated cost of more than $1.2 million through Feb. 10, according to CMAG data. The figures don’t include cable-only channels.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s biggest business trade group, today became the latest entity to weigh in on the race with TV advertising, unveiling a new ad backing McConnell. The incumbent has a 92 percent lifetime rating on votes the organization considers important and is a “champion of pro-business policies,” the group said in a news release.
“Ad activity for this midterm election has ramped up earlier and more intensely than ever,” said Elizabeth Wilner, a senior vice president at Kantar Media. “A dozen different advertisers had hit broadcast TV in Kentucky by January. We didn’t used to see 12 advertisers in a hot Senate race even by Election Day.”
McConnell’s campaign ranks fourth in spending in Louisville, a reflection of the increasing influence of outside groups and super-political action committees in U.S. politics. Super-PACs can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money on elections, although they can’t coordinate with candidates.
An estimated $22.3 million has already been spent nationally on ads by candidates and groups trying to influence Senate races. That total includes advertising last year on special elections in Massachusetts and New Jersey.
Republicans need a net gain of six seats to take control of the U.S. Senate, and much of this year’s campaign action is expected to play out in about 10 states -- including Kentucky -- where polling and analysts suggest close contests.
McConnell, 71, faces a May 20 Republican primary against Louisville businessman Matt Bevin, who is aligned with the limited-government Tea Party movement. If McConnell survives that test, he’ll confront Alison Lundergan Grimes, the state’s Democratic secretary of state, in November’s election.
Lexington, Kentucky’s next big media market, has seen the nation’s second-highest number of spots so far among 2014 Senate races. There have been 3,365 ads there on broadcast television.
Next in spot count comes Little Rock, the state capital of Arkansas, where Democratic Senator Mark Pryor is fighting a challenge from Republican U.S. Representative Tom Cotton.
The Senate advertising battle in Louisville started almost a year ago when McConnell ran the first ad during a local evening newscast on March 14, 2013. The intensity has ebbed and flowed since, with a dozen or so ads now running daily on TV stations there.
“Mitch McConnell has generated a lot of hostility nationally, both for people to the right of him and for Democrats,” said Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. “There are a lot of people willing to put money up front to try to take him down.”
Louisville, ranked the 49th-largest U.S. television market by Nielsen, is also relatively affordable for advertising purchases compared with other places. “You can buy a lot and buy early,” Voss said.
The biggest Senate-race spender so far in Louisville is a super-PAC called Kentuckians for Strong Leadership that’s aiding McConnell’s re-election bid and is financially backed by a group of donors that includes Massachusetts-based private-equity investor John W. Childs. The group, which has run attacks against Grimes, has broadcast more than 750 spots at an estimated cost of at least $330,000.
Patriot Majority USA, a nonprofit that’s boosting Democrats, has spent the second most, airing 430 spots at an estimated cost of $177,000. Some of the group’s top backers include labor union groups such as the International Association of Fire Fighters, United Steelworkers, the AFL-CIO and the Service Employees International Union, according to the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics.
Besides his leadership role in the Senate, McConnell makes for a prime target for Democrats because of his personal quest to delay and defeat legislation supported by President Barack Obama. That sentiment was epitomized by his comments to an interviewer in 2010 when he said: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”
Some of the individual donors to Grimes’ campaign include billionaire investor George Soros, Sony Corp.’s U.S. Chief Executive Officer Michael Lynton and DreamWorks Animation SKG Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey Katzenberg. Actors Jerry Seinfeld and Woody Allen also chipped in, with Seinfeld giving the maximum, $5,200, and Allen giving $500.
“When you’re leading the opposition to President Obama’s agenda as Senator McConnell is, every liberal group in the country is trying to take him out,” said Allison Moore, a McConnell campaign spokeswoman. “That’s the price of effective conservative leadership, and Senator McConnell is very prepared to defend himself.”
Plenty of others are also spending on McConnell’s behalf.
Louisville-based Kentucky Opportunity Coalition has spent almost $164,000, with much of it casting the incumbent as an opponent of the Affordable Care Act and someone allied with Rand Paul, the state’s junior senator and a Tea Party favorite.
McConnell’s campaign is the next biggest advertising spender in Louisville with about $160,000.
The American Chemistry Council, a Washington-based lobbying group whose members include Eastman Chemical Co. and Dow Chemical Co., is the fifth-biggest Louisville spender, running at least $127,000 in ads. The group’s ads have praised McConnell’s work in Washington, without directly endorsing him.
Bevin’s campaign comes next, ranking sixth in Louisville messages and spending about $116,000.
The tone of the ads has been more negative than positive. Almost six in 10 spots have been negative, as measured by CMAG.
The most frequently run ad so far was a favorable one sponsored by the chemistry council that presented McConnell as a lawmaker who supports “less government, more jobs.” It ran more than 500 times in August.
More recently, McConnell’s campaign has been alone in Senate advertising on Louisville’s broadcast channels. Its only ad in late January and early February featured the uranium- enrichment plant worker who lost his vocal cords as part of his throat cancer treatment.
“I worked at a nuclear facility that has been vital for our national security,” the man whispers. “Like many, I was exposed to radiation. I got cancer. But Mitch McConnell fought for us, creating cancer-screening programs and providing compensation for sick workers.”
The ad is part of an effort by McConnell’s campaign to boost his low favorability ratings in the state.
Bevin trailed McConnell, 55 percent to 29 percent, among registered Republicans polled by a group of Kentucky news organizations in the Bluegrass Poll. In the potential November matchup, McConnell trailed Grimes by 4 percentage points.
The poll showed McConnell’s biggest issue may be himself, with just 27 percent of Kentuckians holding a favorable opinion of him, while 50 percent said they had an unfavorable view. Just 43 percent of self-described conservatives, a group McConnell is courting, said they had a favorable opinion of him. The survey, taken Jan. 30 through Feb. 4, included 1,082 registered voters and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
McConnell has experience with close elections. In 2008, he won his fifth term by securing 53 percent of the vote against Democrat Bruce Lunsford, a health-care executive.