Big money ad campaign drowns out other candidates

Rep. John Larson is ramping up his re-election campaign operation in the face of a tough, well-funded candidate who has saturated the airwaves.

No, it’s not Ann Brickley, the little-known 1st District Republican nominee trying to unseat Larson. Larson’s campaign says his biggest foe this season is shaping up to be Linda McMahon, the GOP Senate contender, whose $40 million self-funded campaign is having a ripple effect on other Connecticut contests.

“We’ve got to hammer away at getting our message out in a sea of negative ads,” Larson said Wednesday, a day after his campaign unveiled its first TV spot of the season. Larson said he’s worried voters will feel besieged by the onslaught of negative ads and decide to stay home on Nov. 2.

“It has a cumulative effect,” he said. “You watch these ads and say ‘A pox on both their houses.'”

In another other election year, Larson would have little to worry about. The six-term Democrat has walked away with more than 70 percent of the vote in each of his last three re-election bids. And this election, he has swamped his opponent in fundraising, raising more than $2 million to Brickley’s $250,000, most of which is a loan Brickley made to her campaign.

A third candidate, Ken Krayeske of the Green Party, has not filed a report with the Federal Elections Commission; reporting is not required from campaigns that have raised less than $5,000.

But a recent poll showed Larson ahead of Brickley by only 7 percent points (Krayeske wasn’t included). And while Larson’s campaign dismisses that survey as way off base, they are acting like it’s right on the money.

Christopher Barnes, Larson’s campaign manager, said the congressman’s new ad has been in the works for a long time. But Barnes said the campaign is facing significant new pressure to counter a toxic election climate, which he says has been fueled in large part by McMahon’s ad onslaught as well as the TV ad war in governor’s race.

“Republicans in Connecticut are going to dump somewhere close to $65 million into this campaign, and the bulk of it has been negative and kicking the heck out of Democrats,” Barnes said.

Indeed, one of McMahon’s key themes, highlighted repeatedly in ads and campaign mailings, is that Washington is broken and voters can’t trust “career politicians” to fix the mess. That message is aimed at her Democratic opponent–Connecticut’s long-time Attorney General, Richard Blumenthal–but it has the potential to splash onto to other Democratic contenders.

Brickley sure thinks so. “I believe I’m being helped tremendously,” Brickley said of McMahon’s and other ads that have criticized federal spending as out of control and that take aim at incumbent politicians.

“That helps people get frustrated with the status quo,” said Brickley, although she said her message of less government and lower spending has also resonated.

Brickley has run a few radio ads but no TV spots yet. She said she’s trying to determine if she has enough money to do so-and whether it’s worth it. Given that a small ad buy could easily get lost in the avalanche of other political spots, she said, “we might be better off with radio.”

Barnes said that Larson’s new ad will run “until we feel like everyone has seen it,” and said the campaign has others ready to go if needed.

He said the current spot, which highlights Larson’s efforts to revive U.S. manufacturing and references the congressman’s modest upbringing, was designed to show that “John Larson is different.”

And in this election, Barnes added, “we’ve got to say it a little bit louder and more frequently than usual because of the environment.”

Scott McLean, a political science professor at Quinnipiac University and an analyst with their polling institute, said he is skeptical that McMahon is adding much fuel to the anti-incumbency fires, which he notes are raging across the country.

“The question is whether her ads are fueling the anger or a response or a symptom of the anger,” he said, adding that there’s really no way to know for sure.

Still, he said Larson and other Democrats have good reason to fear McMahon’s millions–but not because of her ad campaign.

“She’s preparing to put millions of dollars into a get-out-the vote effort across Connecticut,” he said. “She’s going to have the resources to do get out of the vote in every single district in the state and that’s what every incumbent Democrat ought to be worried about.”

Larson and his aides said they too are focusing heavily on voter turnout in the final stretch of the campaign. The poll that showed Larson just 7 points ahead, Barnes said, was good because it has helped rally Larson’s base. And Larson said his campaign’s revved up efforts may, in turn, help boost other Democrats.

“We need the first district to be energized for the gubernatorial race” and other contests, Larson said. “This is all going to come down to turnout.”