Connecticut spared the barrage of advocacy ads–so far

WASHINGTON-There’s the JFK ad. The cap-and-trade ad. And even the “I’m sick of her ads” ad.

But if you think the U.S. Senate campaign has been hogging Connecticut’s television airwaves, know that it could get a lot worse.

Independent advocacy groups have largely steered clear of airing TV spots in Connecticut’s Senate and House races so far this election cycle, even as they pour millions of dollars into other hotly contested congressional campaigns around the country.

Advocacy ad 9-30-10

An advocacy group ad targeting Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada

Nationally, advocacy groups have spent a combined $31 million to buy more than 53,000 TV spots in Senate campaigns around the country, according to data compiled by The Wesleyan Media Project, which is tracking political ads in the 2010 elections. The figures cover ads run from Jan. 1 through Sept. 15.

So far in Connecticut, only one group–the U.S. Chamber of Commerce–has jumped into the Senate showdown, spending $23,000 to buy 25 spots supporting Republican Linda McMahon. And no outside groups have stepped into the TV ad wars on behalf of Democrat Richard Blumenthal.

Even the Chamber’s ad buy is “very minimal” compared to what’s being spent in other similar contests, said Michael Franz, an associate professor of government at Bowdoin College, one of three institutions involved in the Wesleyan project.

Thanks to looser rules governing campaign donations, a small army of nonprofit advocacy groups has emerged this election to become a major force in the battle for control of the House and Senate, both of which are up for grabs in November. These new advocacy organizations, some of which do not disclose the identity of their donors, have joined traditional players like the Chamber and large unions to push independent spending to record levels this election season.

In Nevada, for example, Franz said that through Sept. 15, about 13 outside groups had spent more than $4 million to sway voters in the Senate contest between Harry Reid, the Democratic Senate majority leader, and his Tea Party challenger, Sharron Angle. So on top of the ads aired by the two candidates, voters in Nevada are seeing spots from the Tea Party Express, the Club for Growth, and the Patriot Majority, to name a few.

The same is true in California and Colorado, where outside groups have swamped the airwaves with political spots, he said.

When it comes to House contests, it’s a similar story. Nationally, outside groups have already spent about $7.7 million to run more than 13,000 ads. In Connecticut, there’s been almost no such activity in the congressional contests.

Why haven’t these groups waded into the Connecticut fray yet? For starters, Connecticut’s House races have been relatively tepid affairs so far, with only one–in the 4th District–attracting national attention. That contest, pitting Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, against state Sen. Dan Debicella, has been the only one so far to draw advertising by an outside group.

Also, Republican-leaning groups, such as Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, have been more active so far this election than their Democratic counterparts. And from the GOP’s perspective, McMahon, who has pledged to spend as much as $50 million of her personal fortune on her Senate bid, doesn’t really need any extra help.

“She’s doing everything so well, you don’t want to get in the way of a good thing,” said Jonathan Collegio, communications director for Crossroads. “You almost don’t want to do anything that would mess it up.”

Franz said another factor is that the Connecticut Senate contest was not on the national radar early in the campaign season, when Blumenthal had a double-digit lead, while contests in California and Colorado have been closely-watched for months.

With polls now showing an ever-tightening race, the role of outside groups may ratchet up, he said.

To be sure, a major question for Blumenthal in the final stretch of the campaign is whether Democratic-leaning advocacy groups might weigh in to bolster his campaign, and for how much.

The Connecticut AFL-CIO recently sent out a mailing criticizing McMahon, but Terri Reid, the union group’s field communicator, said there were no plans for a TV blitz.

National unions, though, may very well decide to get involved. Teddy Davis, a spokesman for the Service Employees International Union, said SEIU plans to spend $44 million in various House and Senate contests to mobilize voters and boost endorsed candidates. He would not say whether Connecticut was on the union’s priority list, but noted that labor views both the Senate and gubernatorial contests here as very important.

Indeed, Franz said the relative calm on Connecticut’s airwaves could be disrupted any moment.

“A lot of money is spent at the end of elections,” he noted. “And the Democrats could scare their favorite donors into [spending money in] races where it’s absolutely necessary.”