Skip to main Content

Other campaigns look for light as Alaska's U.S. Senate race hogs attention

  • Author: Alex DeMarban
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published July 5, 2014

The epic battle over a U.S. Senate seat in Alaska has clogged television airwaves with thousands of commercials, pushed up ad rates, and left candidates in lesser-watched contests -- from the U.S. House race down -- scrambling to find cheaper ways to spread their message.

That means despite high-tech options such as Google, Facebook and Pandora, observers say it's candidates who capitalize on old-school canvassing -- door-to-door knocking and meet-and-greets -- who will have the edge.

"It's back to the future, so to speak; good old-fashioned shoe leather," said political strategist Art Hackney. "It's knowing how to find people, talk to them and get back to them."

Television ad buys in the Senate race alone -- led by super PACs from outside Alaska -- have already topped $25 million statewide, with roughly equal spending by Democratic and Republican groups jousting over Democrat Mark Begich's seat, observers say. By mid-June, more than 20,000 TV commercials had aired statewide in the fight for the seat, tops for any race in the country, according to Kantar Media, a national research firm.

"We are headed to the costliest race in American history on a per-capita basis," said Jim Lottsfeldt, whose pro-Begich PAC, Put Alaska First, made waves in May when it paid more than $4 million to nail down gobs of TV time for weeks leading up to the Nov. 4 election.

Rates have risen to record levels, with super PACs paying the most, followed by ballot initiative groups. The costliest spots? The state's most prominent TV station, KTUU, charged $15,000 for 30 seconds during Sunday Night Football this fall. Put Alaska First and the Democractic Senatorial Campaign Committee paid for them.

That's a record for a 30-second spot and beats the old mark for a political ad by about $5,000, said Nancy Johnson, KTUU's general sales manager. The old high was set six years ago, when Begich faced Sen. Ted Stevens, she said.

Ad costs have doubled since April, said Lottsfeldt. And with four months to go, they'll only rise.

Even the governor’s race affected

State candidates get the lowest rates, but their options are shrinking.

KTVA-TV in Anchorage said it's currently not accepting state candidate ads, with the exception of the governor's race, though its policy may loosen after the primary. Anchorage Media Group said current plans call for five of its seven radio stations, including 106.5 FM KWHL and 104.1 FM KBEAR in Anchorage, not to accept state candidate ads after the primary.

Both stations said they don't want to inconvenience traditional clients, such as car dealerships or restaurants. With federal law requiring equal access, letting one state candidate in the door could mean making room for others and bumping longtime advertisers at the last minute. Federal candidates have more protection: By law, stations can't turn them away.

"It's mind-boggling," said Hackney. The lack of airwave space this early is "totally and completely unprecedented."

His groups are partly responsible. He's a strategist for the anti-Begich super PACs American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, backed by Karl Rove. They recently plunked down $5.5 million to counter Put Alaska First and buy ad spots leading up to the election, Hackney said.

The fallout hits even gubernatorial candidates. "How do you allocate your money when all the good stuff has been taken?" wondered Jerry Gallagher, Gov. Sean Parnell's campaign manager. "Do you buy late night stuff or allocate it to other media? That's the kind of exercise we're going through now, and I don't think we're alone."

He recently considered airplane banners bearing Parnell's name. Too dangerous, he concluded; what if the plane crashed? Instead, the campaign will give increased attention to social media, more volunteers, and traditional routes such as radio, signs and print media.

Parnell's top challengers -- independent Bill Walker and Democratic candidate Byron Mallott -- said they're pursuing a variety of options. Mary Halloran, campaign manager for Mallott, said it's unfortunate that spending by Outside groups has swallowed so much airwave space. "That's to the detriment of democracy in Alaska. It's obvious that pricing everyday Alaskans out of the market is not a healthy thing for us," she said.

Getting in early

KTUU is holding some slots for state candidates all the way to November. But it's on a first-come, first-served basis, said Johnson. Wait, and they might end up on late-night television instead of the local news.

"It's a difficult balancing act," said Johnson. "We owe it to our corporate parent to make as much income as we can during this special election." But the station has a responsibility to its regular ad buyers and viewers who want to stay informed, she said.

Some state candidates paid early to get space on KTUU, which airs the state's most-watched local news program. Hollis French, running for lieutenant governor, paid the station about $30,000 to line up some 200 ad spots from September to early November, or about $150 a spot on average.

The rates seemed normal and he got good placements, he said. But he's never bought ads so far in advance. "I wanted to nail the times down. Channel 2 is getting ungettable."

But this race won't be decided by TV, he said. "It's less about the public air war this time, and it's more about your ability to hustle up volunteers and execute a ground game," he said.

Looking for options

Lottsfeldt said he's trying to help some state candidates capitalize on the diminishing lack of TV time. Anchorage has a lot of radio stations for its size and many will continue accept state candidate ads.

One idea: targeting different radio audiences with unique messages. That might mean one commercial for hip-hop listeners on KFAT-FM and another for classical music listeners at KLEF-FM. "I'm trying to figure out where those opportunities are across the state," he said.

To keep from being drowned out, he's advising campaigns "to be creative."

One model is Rep. Don Young's Democratic opponent, Forrest Dunbar, said Lottsfeldt. Dunbar has gained national attention with his offbeat riffs on social media, including a YouTube video in which he appears as a long-haired rocker and a Facebook page featuring his "Run Forrest Run" theme, a reference to the movie "Forrest Gump."

Dunbar also plans to advertise on Google and Pandora, the online music station, among other things, said Wiley Cason, communications director. "To be honest, the TV ads are so expensive we're not really seeing the best bang for our buck," he said.

Ballot initiatives paying more

Hackney has bought TV ads through November for clients such as Rep. Young and Bristol Bay Forever, the ballot initiative requiring legislative approval for large-scale mining operations in the Bristol Bay Reserve.

At KTUU, the ballot initiative is paying $125,000 for about 40 ad spots from mid-October until the day of the vote, averaging about $3,000 every 30 seconds.

Initiative rates, which are not held by down by federal law as candidate rates are, have jumped, Hackney said. The ballot initiative to repeal the new oil-production tax cut, set for the Aug. 19 primary election, has generated its own massive spending by oil companies.

On the November ballot are initiatives to raise the minimum wage and legalize marijuana. Taylor Bickford, spokesperson for the marijuana legalization effort, said TV rates for issue campaigns have reached unseen levels.

With TV ad space costly and limited, Bickford is counting on "hundreds of volunteers statewide." The lack of TV time will hurt his opponents -- they don't have the popular support his side enjoys, he said: "When you can't wage a broadcast media campaign and you don't have a robust grassroots network across the state, it becomes real difficult to move the needle."

Deborah Williams, deputy treasurer with Big Marijuana, Big Mistake, a group opposing the legalization effort, said she knows her group will be "grossly outspent." She'll advertise on social media, and plans to emphasize forums, letters to the editor, and one-on-one conversations.

The lack of television commercial time -- with its sound bites -- helps her side, she said. "People have misperceptions about this initiative, and it takes more than 30 seconds to explore them," she said. "When people understand what this involves, we've found again and again they believe this is not in the best interest of Alaskans."

Putting in the legwork

Candidates for state House and Senate said they're hitting the streets and rallying volunteers to make up for limited airwave time.

Some have already spent months knocking on doors, such as Democratic candidate Felix Rivera, a long shot in the race against Sen. Kevin Meyer, co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee. Like other contenders for state House and Senate seats, Rivera said he's not even thinking about TV.

But that's OK, he said. Those who put in the hours walking through neighborhoods in the midtown and south Anchorage district will have the advantage, he said.

"This is shifting the dynamic from trying to boom-box our message over the airwaves, or even online, to having a more personal relationship with our voters. So it's great in that aspect," he said.

But Meyer, who is much better funded, said he's leaving nothing to chance. With TV unavailable or too costly, he's also focused on his ground game. It's something he's done for years, he said.

Each evening after leaving his job at ConocoPhillips, he slips on a pair of tennies and heads out to wrap fliers on doorknobs and ask voters for feedback. He figures he's already visited a few thousand homes with registered voters. Ten thousand more to go, he said.

But these days, some people aren't eager to talk. They're getting overwhelmed with ads and visits from ballot-initiative volunteers.

"We're still going to hit all the doors," Meyer said. "I just hope people will open them."

For more newsletters click here

Local news matters.

Support independent, local journalism in Alaska.