Campaign ad featuring Sen. Stevens may have salvaged Murkowski’s campaign

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) may have the late Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) to thank for her successful reelection bid.

Two weeks before Election Day, Murkowski released a game-changing TV ad featuring Stevens.

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The 60-second spot opened with Stevens’s daughter, Sue Covich, saying her father had endorsed Murkowski before his death in an August plane crash. “My dad and Lisa made a great team for Alaska,” Covich says.

As she’s talking, vintage images of Murkowski and Stevens appear onscreen. Covich notes that Stevens had cut a TV ad for Murkowski before he died, but the senator opted not to run it during her primary out of respect for his family. Murkowski subsequently lost her primary to Republican Joe Miller.

The ad then cuts to footage of the late Stevens speaking direct-to-camera about “the need to reelect Lisa.”

“We need Lisa and the seniority she’s earned now more than ever,” Stevens says.

The ad had a strong, effective message and was deemed highly credible, according to a survey of political insiders Wilson Research Strategies (WRS) conducted for The Hill. That credibility may be what helped Murkowski regain some of the momentum Miller had claimed after his victory in the primary.

“The Murkowski campaign struggled with whether to air the ad once Stevens died,” said Tyler Harber, a consultant with WRS — had she released it ahead of the August primary vote, the outcome may have been different.

“Stevens was no doubt a popular guy in Alaska who commands attention and gave Murkowski a way to bridge the gap with Republican voters who were thinking of defecting to her primary opponent,” Harber said.

While Murkowski saved her best ammunition for the general election, one Democratic Senate candidate used his most effective TV ad during his primary.

Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) was considered the underdog in the Pennsylvania Democratic Senate primary race against incumbent Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.). But the former admiral had an ace up his sleeve: Specter’s switch from the GOP to run for reelection as a Democrat.

Sestak used footage of a press conference Specter had given wherein he addressed criticism of his party switch. “My change in party will enable me to be reelected,” Specter is shown saying in the ad. The ad then cuts to footage of President George W. Bush praising Specter, and notes that he’s been a Republican for 45 years. The ad repeats the Specter quote near the close and concludes with the announcer saying: “Arlen Specter switched parties to save one job: his, not yours.”

“This ad scores very well in terms of the strength of the message, its effectiveness and its memorability,” said Harber. “The Sestak ad was a great ad, and was definitely a key reason he was able to defeat Specter in the primary.”

Sestak was the surprise winner of the May primary. Unfortunately for the Democrat, he wasn’t able to develop as effective an ad campaign against former Rep. Pat Toomey, his Republican rival. He subsequently lost the Senate race.

It wasn’t just candidates for office who used effective TV advertising this cycle.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee’s (NRSC) Independent Expenditure arm also commissioned some memorable TV ads. In one Nevada spot, the NRSC hit Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) for living at the Ritz-Carlton in Washington “while thousands are losing their homes.” It was a memorable ad, but Reid ultimately won reelection by five points.

Meanwhile, one of the NRSC’s more effective spots was used against Kentucky Democrat Jack Conway. The attorney general was locked in a bare-knuckle fight against Republican Rand Paul for the state’s open Senate seat.

Using faux black-and-white newsreel footage, the committee’s 30-second ad used a horseracing metaphor to accuse Conway of being out of touch with Kentuckians. “Whose horse is Jack Conway riding?” the announcer asks. “Big government running healthcare, big cuts to Medicare, Jack Conway took their side. Jack Conway: He’s not riding Kentucky’s horse.”

The ad was effectively targeted at voters in Kentucky, where horseracing is a major industry. “Using film footage of past races at Churchill Downs was just the icing on the cake at moving voters in the Bluegrass State,” Harber said.

Many campaigns this cycle went for ads that were either offbeat or designed to be funny. That style of commercial ranged from Rep. Michele Bachmann’s (R-Minn.) “Jim the Election Guy” ad series, which featured the titular character talking about the campaign, to Delaware Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell’s infamous “I’m You, Not a Witch” ad.

While some voters may have been happy with a distraction from the more serious issues, those ads weren’t the ones that helped win elections. “For the most part, the more traditional style of campaign ads, with the candidate or announcer stating the situation in a serious manner, were most effective at the end of the day,” said Harber.

Candidates will likely hear something similar from their consultants when preparing their campaign strategies in 2012.


Working with The Hill for its Air Wars feature, Wilson Research Strategies e-mails campaign or issue ads to survey participants who view the ads and rate their effectiveness on several criteria.


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