A super PAC that supports Alaska Sen. Mark Begich plans to reserve millions of dollars' worth of TV commercial time months in advance, a record spend that observers say could heighten an already aggressive media war that potentially squeezes state candidates off the air.
Jim Lottsfeldt, who runs Put Alaska First, confirmed that the group plans to buy more than $4 million worth of prime television advertising space on major stations across the state eight weeks before the Nov. 4 general election. He declined to be more specific than that.
"Alaska has never had super PACs engaged at this level in the races, but it's the new normal for American congressional politics," said Lottsfeldt. The buy was made possible by the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizen United decision in 2010, which opened the door for unlimited spending by corporations and unions advocating for individual candidates.
Such groups have already plunked down millions of dollars in the race for the Senate seat held by the Democrat Begich, a contest Republicans hope to win in their effort to regain control of the Senate.
"Wow," said pollster and political consultant Marc Hellenthal when told of the planned ad buy.
He said as far as he knows, that would be a record for a one-time purchase in what's going to be a "record, record year" of political spending. The battle over the state's oil-production tax cut has already led to record spending for a single effort in one election cycle, he said, with the oil industry and allies having spent more than $8 million to stop the potential repeal of the tax cut at the Aug. 19 primary election.
"And it's not even prime time on that issue because we're still three months out," he said.
The planned buy of Put Alaska First will be good news for TV and radio stations, but it could be a problem for candidates in state races if groups opposing Mark Begich, like Americans For Prosperity, respond with equal force and buy up similar amounts of airtime, observers said.
By law, stations are limited to what they can charge a candidate for advertising, but Super PACs can be charged at much-higher market rates. And while stations can reject requests from candidates for state or local office, they must allow time for candidates running for federal office.
With the chance to make much more money from independent expenditure groups, the TV and radio media will have an incentive to pass up state candidates, Hellenthal said.
"Why sell to someone at a discount rate when you can get five to 10 times as much for someone else?" he said.
It's possible that many candidates for state office might have to seek other venues for advertising, including the Internet, newspapers, direct-mail and door-to-door outreach. They'll also have to use catchier gimmicks to hook voters.
A lack of airtime will give "tremendous advantage to incumbents, because they already have name ID," Hellenthal said. "It just becomes real hard for someone who isn't an incumbent to get established when they can't do radio or TV effectively."
Saving time for state candidates
The actual money from Put Alaska First to lock in time in September, October and early November hadn't arrived at the offices of Anchorage NBC affiliate KTUU as of early Monday afternoon, said Nancy Johnson, general sales manager at the station. But she said she understood that a large purchase was coming, and that the station's advertising representative in Washington, D.C., had received a big purchase order.
Johnson said she didn't know the size of the purchase order.
KTUU has decided to save some time slots for state races in the last weeks of the campaign, Johnson said. But it will be less than what was available in previous elections, perhaps reduced by half during popular local news shows.
"We want them to be able to have something, that's our plan," she said, referring to state campaigns.
The station also hopes to capitalize on the opportunity this election year presents. "Don't misunderstand me. We will still make quite a bit of money from issue advertisers, and that's a good thing."
Already, political advertising spending is much busier than expected, she said.
"We didn't expect it to be crazy in May," she said.
Word of the big ad buy caused the Begich camp and the campaign of one of his opponents, former state attorney general and Republican primary hopeful Dan Sullivan, to verbally slam each other over the Outside donations that pour into independent expenditure groups.
"Assuming that Harry Reid and his liberal allies in Washington are going to spend over $4 million of outside money to support Mark Begich's campaign, it explains why Senator Begich has voted with President Obama 97 percent of the time. It also begs the question for Alaskans: what will Mark Begich owe them for this DC political bailout?" said the Sullivan campaign.
Begich's campaign staff said big-spending groups, especially those backed by the Koch brothers like Americans for Prosperity, have already spent more than $2.5 million to attack the senator. Americans for Prosperity has led the way, spending $1.1 million, they said.
Begich said the attack by Sullivan was a diversion from telling Alaskans where he stands on issues like "the Flint Hills closure, protecting our fisheries or a woman's right to privacy."
"For months, he has watched in silence as anti-Alaska machines like the Koch Brothers and the Club for Growth pump up his candidacy by spending millions on false attack ads. That's not going to change between now and Nov. 4. It's only going to get louder."
Will Americans For Prosperity fire back? A spokesman for the group didn't immediately respond to that question. But he did send an emailed retort blasting Begich.
"I think it's noteworthy that Begich is forecasting he'll need a last-minute, all-or-nothing effort to save his political career," said Levi Russell with Americans for Prosperity.
That the volume of ads in the Senate race will increase is one thing everyone seems to agree upon. Pollster and political consultant Ivan Moore said it's a smart strategy for Put Alaska First to book time months in advance, because the rates they'll have to pay later are going to rise. He's heard the cost of advertising could rise to as much as $10,000 for a 30-second spot in the days before the November election.
"It's just loopy money," he said. "It's crazy."
Lottsfeldt said he's expecting Americans for Prosperity and other groups to fight back heavily. And that will cause another problem for voters: ad nausea.
"I think it's safe to say that the Koch brothers and Super PACs on the other side are going to be jumping in feet first. All the inventory is quickly going to go away, and we are going to be sick of political ads."