Strategists say impact of outside group spending is overrated

Democratic and Republican strategists say the predicted impact of spending by outside groups has been exaggerated this election cycle as Senate Democratic incumbents have remained competitive despite a deluge of attack ads.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and other Democratic leaders have warned that the spending of outside groups backed by Charles and David Koch threatens to drown out everything else this election.

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But on the campaign trail the flood of attack ads has had a limited impact as voters have grown cynical of television carpet-bombing campaigns funded by shadowy groups, strategists from both parties say.

“Voters are getting more sophisticated about that kind of spending with these generic names and groups where nobody knows who’s funding them in a lot of cases. I think voters are getting pretty cynical about it,” said Mike Lux, a Democratic strategist.

“Some Democratic campaigns have done a good job of doing some Jiu Jitsu moves to push back,” he added, referring to the martial art where a combatant can deflect the force of an attack back at the opponent.

The best example of that was earlier this year when Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) turned the tables on an attack ad funded by a Koch brothers-backed group.

Begich questioned the Kochs’ motives by highlighting a decision by Koch Industries to close a refinery outside of Fairbanks and lay off 80 workers.

He portrayed the major GOP donors as carpetbaggers with little personal connection to his state and even slammed the attack ad they funded for hiring an actress from Maryland to play an Alaskan.

Sen. Mark Pryor (Ark.), another vulnerable Democratic incumbent, has accused the Koch brothers of trying to “buy the Senate” and has rallied supporters by telling them, “you should decide who represents you in the Senate — not shadowy outsiders who are focused on their own self-interests.”

Chip Saltsman, a Republican strategist, said voters now look skeptically at attack ads funded by outside groups, especially if the agenda of those groups is somewhat murky.

“I think our voters get it. I think they understand the difference. When they got some outside group that comes rolling in the last three weeks and dumps a lot of money in, they’re a little suspect,” he said.

“One of the things that these third party groups don’t do that they should is if you’re spending a lot of money anyway, spend a little bit of money telling [voters] about who you are and what your goals are,” he said.

Saltsman served as an advisor to Leslie Rutledge, who recently won her primary race and a runoff for Arkansas attorney general despite outside groups spending nearly $1 million against her — four times as much as her $250,000 campaign budget.

The Koch brothers are expected to spend nearly $300 million against Democratic candidates through various political advocacy groups, according to media reports.

Groups classified under section 501(c)4 of the tax code do not have to disclose much of their spending, but strategists tallying media buys say it has already reached well into the millions.

Three months before Election Day, the spending has had a limited impact so far, according to polls.

Recent polls show Begich leading his most likely Republican opponent. A July survey published by CBS News and The New York Times showed him leading Republican Dan Sullivan by 12 points.

A CBS News/New York Times poll from July showed Pryor trailing his Republican opponent, Rep. Tom Cotton (Ark.), by only four points. A survey commissioned by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm, showed Cotton up by two points in early August. An NBC News/Marist poll from late April and early May showed Pryor up 11 points.

In North Carolina, Sen. Kay Hagan (D) is even with Republican statehouse Speaker Thom Tillis.

In Louisiana, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) trailed GOP challenger Bill Cassidy by only one point in a July CBS News/New York Times poll. A survey by Rasmussen Reports, a Republican firm, showed Landrieu up by three points in early July.

Rodell Mollineau, who serves as an adviser to American Bridge 21st Century, a Democratic super-PAC, said spending by outside groups cannot be discounted but it has proved to be not as effective as thought two years ago.

“I think super-PACs are very good at moving the needle a point or maybe a couple of points. They’re not there to win elections,” he said.

He said outside money was “overvalued” in 2012, when many strategists and handicappers assumed third-party groups would take over campaigns.

Their limited impact was demonstrated by the poor record compiled by GOP strategist Karl Rove and his affiliated group American Crossroads two years ago.

American Crossroads spent $105 million in 2012 and opposed only 2 losing candidates, compiling a 1.29 percent return on its investment, according to a study by the Sunlight Foundation. Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies spent $71 million in 2012 and opposed 7 losing candidates to produce a 14.43 percent return, according to Sunlight.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, by comparison, had a 79.73 percent return on investment in 2012, according to the group.

“Money is necessary but not sufficient for political success,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster and strategist. “The record is replete with candidates who have outspent their opponents and still lost.”

Ayres said the effectiveness of advertising by outside groups depends largely on the type of group that does the advocacy and quality of the ad. The National Rifle Association, for instance, has a much more loyal following than some of the super-PACs with generic-sounding names that have sprung up in recent years.

As much as outside groups will spend this cycle, Ayres predicted other factors would have a bigger impact on deciding control of the Senate.

He said President Obama’s job-approval rating, the political leanings of the Senate battlegrounds themselves and the demographics of the voters who show up to the polls on Election Day would be the top three factors.