Coming This Fall to TVs in Iowa and Maine: Lots of Political Ads

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Iowa and Maine, two smaller states not often at the center of the general-election action, are preparing for an onslaught of TV ads in the fall thanks to a confluence of competitive presidential and congressional races.

The four super PACs linked to Democratic and Republican leaders in the House and Senate recently reserved at least $60 million in fall TV spending in the states, which were the only two included in each group’s initial plans. The GOP’s Senate campaign arm this week booked nearly $8 million more there, and the three other official party committees will likely soon follow suit.

The early reservations lock in lower rates, provide a signal of their intentions to allies and opponents alike, and ensure the groups will have space to advertise on crowded airwaves. The roles Iowa and Maine could play in deciding the Senate majority and a close presidential contest ups the ante for both parties in the two states.

“It’s going to be a banner year for Maine TV stations,” said Erik Potholm, a Republican media consultant and Maine native. “It’s easily going to be the most expensive campaign in Maine history.”

The four independent expenditure-only political action committees say they’ve already reserved at least $230 million worth of TV air time nationwide in key races.

Along with marquee Senate races in Iowa and Maine, both have House seats carried by President Donald Trump in 2016 that Democrats flipped in 2018 and Republicans hope to win back.

In Maine, Sen. Susan Collins (R) and her chief rival, state House Speaker Sara Gideon (D), have already spent nearly $9 million on TV, according to Advertising Analytics — with six months still to go before the general election. Her seat is in the top tier of Democratic targets in the party’s quest to net at least three seats to win the majority.

Read more: Political Outside Groups Buy Fall Air Time for Ads (Podcast)

Freshman Rep. Jared Golden (D) is attempting to hold the 2nd District, which Trump won by 10 percentage points while Hillary Clinton won statewide by 3 points. Because Maine awards Electoral College votes separately for its two congressional districts, it has the potential to attract plenty of presidential campaign ads.

Tony Corrado, a government professor at Colby College in Maine, said the political ad volume over the first three months of the election year was nearly “comparable to the advertising one would expect during the general election period.” He expects more money to be spent on political ads in the state than in any previous year.

Photo by Al Drago/Bloomberg
Outside groups are targeting Sen. Susan Collins’ (R-Maine) re-election race.

Senate Majority PAC (SMP), the super PAC linked to Democratic leaders, and the Republican-aligned super PAC Senate Leadership Fund (SLF) have reserved nearly $70 million each of TV time for the fall, including more than $25 million in Iowa and over $15.5 million in Maine, according to Advertising Analytics.

The House Democrats’ aligned super PAC, House Majority PAC (HMP), already has reserved a total of $51 million in TV air time in the fall for dozens of races, including about $3 million in Iowa and $2 million in Maine. In addition to Golden’s seat in Maine, the super PAC is helping defend three in Iowa: Democratic Reps. Abby Finkenauer in the 1st District and Cindy Axne in the 3rd District, who flipped Repbulican-held seats in 2018, and the 2nd District seat of retiring Rep. Dave Loebsack.

The House Republican super PAC, Congressional Leadership Fund, has committed to a total of $43 million in TV ads spending, including $3 million in Iowa and $1.7 million in Maine.

Messaging

The super PACs all said the early commitment of this much money was unprecedented. The move takes advantage of low advertising rates now being offered due to the coronavirus pandemic. But a big question remains about the coming ad campaign: How will political messaging take on the pandemic that’s gripped the nation and the world?

“There will be a cascading series of issues that arise as a result of the virus and its impact on the economy of Iowa that I think will play a role in voter satisfaction or dissatisfaction with current incumbents at every level,” Tom Vilsack, a former Democratic governor of Iowa and Obama administration Agriculture secretary, said in an email. Vilsack is now the president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council.

Democrats’ messaging in campaign ads across the country “will be all about health care,” predicted Douglas Gross, who served as chief of staff to Terry Branstad, the former Republican governor of Iowa and current ambassador to China. Gross, a member of the Des Moines law firm BrownWinick, said health care worked as a message for Democrats in 2018, when they won control of the House.

Republicans, he said, may try to focus on local issues. In Iowa, Gross said, their message will be to stick with Sen. Joni Ernst(R) because “Joni has fought for Iowa and is one of us.” Ernst is likely to face Democrat Theresa Greenfield, whom the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has endorsed.

Promoting government-guaranteed health care coverage, which propelled House Democrats to the majority in 2018, is likely to be their main message again, according to Caitlin Legacki, spokeswoman for HMP, the House Democrats’ super PAC. “COVID-19 has changed the political landscape considerably, and it’s hard to know what that will look like in October or November, but it does underscore the value of strong leaders who will continue to fight” for health care coverage, Legacki said.

SMP spokeswoman Rachel Irwin said “while it’s still too early to speak to specific coronavirus messaging, it’s clear that Senate Republicans will remain loyal to their party leaders, even as this administration plays politics with life-saving equipment and is leaving states to fend for themselves.”

Spokespersons for the Republican super PACs didn’t respond to emails asking about plans for GOP campaign messaging. But the Trump’s campaign this week pointed to its fundraising success in the first quarter as a sign of support for the president’s handling of the pandemic.

Emily Wilkins in Washington also contributed to this story.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kenneth P. Doyle in Washington at kdoyle@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Kyle Trygstad at ktrygstad@bgov.com; Bennett Roth at broth@bgov.com

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