Super PACs Could Outspend Political Campaigns in Midterm Ad Wars

Rancor Over Affordable Care Act Will Be Major Driver

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Americans for Prosperity and other Republican groups are campaigning hard against the ACA.
Americans for Prosperity and other Republican groups are campaigning hard against the ACA.

It's unlikely that the 2014 midterm elections are going to blow away any ad spending records, with the exception of one. Some say this will be the first time that Super PACs outspend actual campaigns.

According to Kantar Media, from Jan. 1 to March 25, the Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity aired 14,624 spots in nine Senate races and the pro-Democrat Senate Majority PAC has aired 6,061 spots in six of those races. Elizabeth Wilner, senior VP at Kantar Media Ad Intelligence, said "exponentially more" Super PAC money will be spent this year and for the first time Super PACs will outspend campaigns.

Much of the Super PAC money will be spent on ads attacking -- and somewhat less money will be spent defending -- the Affordable Care Act.

"It's one of the most polarizing issues of our times," said Scott Roskowski, chief development officer for the Television Bureau of Advertising.

Take the special congressional election this month in Florida between Democrat Alex Sink and Republican David Jolly. Super PACs for and against Obamacare spent about $500,000 each on the race; a total of more than $11 million was spent between third-party groups and the campaigns.

Despite the rancor over ACA, however, the political season will be will be marked by a lack of candidate "mega spenders" and tight races in expensive broadcast markets.

Midterm elections, of course, lack the advertising clout of a presidential campaign year. But Kantar Media says broadcast ad spending should edge up about $100 million over spending in 2010 to a total of $2.4 billion. (Kantar will update its projections later in the week.)

Hot races in Congress are chiefly in states like Louisiana, Arkansas, Alaska and Iowa, where broadcast markets are less costly for advertisers than other places.

"There is no big race in New York, there is no big race in California. The big races are taking place in the cheap states," said Ms. Wilner.

Missing: The Independently Wealthy
Another hurdle for those hoping to make money from political advertising this year is that there are no "mega spenders" like Meg Whitman, the Republican who lost the California governor's race in 2010 despite spending more than $175 million, most of it out of her own pocket.

In 2010, $380 million alone was spent on ads in Connecticut, California and Texas by mega spenders. "We have to make up that ground this year," Mr. Roskowski said. He believes Kantar's estimate "can be achieved," but will be tough.

The TVB based much of its political analysis on the projections of the Cook Political Report.

The Cook report says there are 13 close races in the Senate -- seven that are real toss ups. Those involve incumbent Sens. Mary Landrieu, D-La., Mark Begich, D-Alaska, Kay Hagan, D-N.C., Mark Pryor, D-Ark., Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and include open-seat races in Georgia and Michigan.

Mr. Roskowski said one thing that will crank up spending on these and other Senate races is the fight Republicans are waging to take over the Democrat-controlled chamber.

"We sense there is going to be a ton of money spent in Senate races," he said.

Dennis Wharton, exec VP of the National Association of Broadcasters also said the intense fight for control of the Senate will help boost the fortunes of broadcasters.

"Because the stakes are so high, you are going to see money flow to the battleground states," he said.

Cable is also likely to make gains this year, according to Kantar, bringing in about $625 million.

Some action in expensive DMAs
Although many close contests are in states with inexpensive designated market areas, or DMA's, some costly campaigns will be run in more expensive markets like Virginia, where incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Warner faces well-funded GOP challenger Ed Gillespie; Florida, where Republican Governor Rick Scott is battling former Governor Charlie Crist; and Pennsylvania, where Republican Governor Tom Corbett has attracted several Democratic rivals.

In fact, there are 32 gubernatorial races this year and 11 of them are competitive. That and the formidable fight for control of the Senate are already bringing out the Super PACS. They hardly made an impact in 2010, accounting for only about $200 million of the ad spending that year.

The Cook Political Report says there are about 40 competitive House races this year and 14 are toss ups. Some of those toss-up races are in expensive markets in Florida, New York, California and Illinois.

Mr. Roskowski also thinks there may be big ad spending in some GOP primaries, in what he calls a "Republican Civil War," between Tea Party candidates and more mainstream Republicans.

"But that remains to be seen," he said.

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