Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s II campaign for Virginia governor has leaned heavily on outside allies as the candidate tries to stay competitive on the airwaves with businessman Terry McAuliffe, whose fundraising prowess has allowed him to carve out a significantly larger presence in the pricey Northern Virginia television market.
With close to seven weeks remaining until Election Day, new data from the ad tracking firm Kantar Media show that McAuliffe has outspent Cuccinelli on television ads, $5 million to $3.2 million statewide. But the Republican Governors Association has kicked in $2.5 million to help balance the scales, while the Democratic Party of Virginia has spent $2 million.
Counting all the players in the contest, almost $13.6 million was spent to air ads 33,000 times through Wednesday, according to Kantar, with $7.75 million of that going to help McAuliffe and $5.84 million devoted to aiding Cuccinelli. A few outside groups have weighed in, including the environmental super PAC NextGen Climate Action Committee and the conservative group Citizens United.
Elizabeth Wilner, a vice president at Kantar and former NBC News political director, called the Virginia advertisers “a mix of familiar and new names. . . . So it hasn’t become a melee of newborn super PACs, but you could still call it a proving ground for the super PAC era.”
Wilner also noted that some groups had “borrowed a page from Obama 2012” by staying on the air during the summer “instead of going dark, like they did four years ago.”
McAuliffe, the former Democratic National Committee chairman and longtime money chief for Bill and Hillary Clinton, has outraised Cuccinelli since the race began and has used that edge to reach more households in Virginia.
Both candidates remain relatively unpopular — a Quinnipiac University poll released this week found that 51 percent of likely voters had an unfavorable view of Cuccinelli, while 38 percent felt unfavorably toward McAuliffe — and much of the ad traffic has been sharply negative.
New ads released by each campaign Thursday told the tale. Cuccinelli’s team unveiled a spot using his recent endorsement by the Northern Virginia Technology Council’s political arm to contrast the two men, with Cuccinelli described as “serious” and “detail-oriented” and McAuliffe as “uninformed” and “superficial.”
McAuliffe, meanwhile, released the latest in a series of ads taking Cuccinelli to task for how the attorney general’s office has handled a controversial gas royalties case involving lawsuits by southwest Virginia landowners against out-of-state energy companies.
Beyond those themes, McAuliffe has frequently focused his ad fire on Cuccinelli’s record on abortion and women’s health issues, while Cuccinelli’s spots have emphasized the controversies of McAuliffe’s business record.
In the pricey and vote-rich Washington media market, McAuliffe has spent $3.1 million to Cuccinelli’s $1.7 million. And the Democratic Party of Virginia has outspent the Republican Governors Association, $1.4 million to $1 million.
In the Richmond and Roanoke markets, McAuliffe has also outspent Cuccinelli, but the RGA has come in heavily for the Republican. The RGA has outspent McAuliffe and the state Democratic Party combined in both Harrisonburg and Charlottesville, where the Cuccinelli campaign hasn’t played at all.
In the tri-cities market — which includes much of southwest Virginia — the McAuliffe campaign and the RGA have battled almost to a tie, while again the Cuccinelli campaign has been dark. The two campaigns are nearly even in the Norfolk market, each spending more than $600,000 there.
Cuccinelli has aired the biggest share of his ads — 1,900 overall — in the Norfolk market, while McAuliffe has aired his most — 2,800 — in the Washington area. (Roanoke is a close second for McAuliffe, who has advertised heavily on the gas royalties issue there.)
Aside from the two campaigns and party committees, the biggest outside spender by far has been NextGen Climate Action Committee, the super PAC funded by hedge-fund billionaire and environmental activist Tom Steyer. The group has put at least $600,000 into anti-Cuccinelli ads, most of it in the Norfolk and Richmond markets.
Although some Virginians may already be tired of all the ads, they’ll likely remember that the airwaves were much more crowded just a year ago.
Turnout in gubernatorial years – and overall interest in the election – pales in comparison with years when the White House is up for grabs, and that dynamic shows up clearly in the advertising stats.
In 2012, when Virginia was hotly contested by President Obama and Mitt Romney (R), more than $123 million worth of ads — 159,000 overall — were aired in the state’s five biggest media markets between April and November alone. And the tight U.S. Senate race added many millions of dollars more.
Even with many weeks to go, 2013’s ad numbers will look tiny in comparison.