Super PACs’ spending isn’t always welcomed by candidates they support

If you are a candidate in a close race, you might think it is a good thing when a big outside group starts spending millions on your behalf.

And yet, Jeff Link, an adviser to Iowa’s Democratic nominee for Senate, Rep. Bruce Braley, sounded ambivalent about an unconventional new ad that a liberal environmental super PAC has put up against Braley’s Republican opponent, Joni Ernst.

“Time will tell,” Link said. “I don’t know. I don’t know if they tested it. I don’t know what’s coming next. I know as much as you do.”

The 60-second spot by former hedge fund manager Tom Steyer’s NextGen Climate has a lot of people in Iowa scratching their heads. Is it edgy, or just weird?

The ad is the opening salvo in what NextGen says will be a $2.6 million effort — huge by Iowa standards. It looks as if it could be a trailer for the next season of “House of Cards,” with a little “Pulp Fiction” thrown in.

Liberal environmentalist Tom Steyer's new group produced this ad attacking Iowa Senate candidate Joni Ernst (R). (THE FIX: One of the most bizarre political ads you’ll see this year/http://wapo.st/1nISuGM)

Dimly lit, slow moving and shot with Hollywood-quality production values, the ad features two corporate bad guys chuckling over the fact that Ernst has taken a no-new-taxes pledge. Smoke fills the air. One of them opens a briefcase.

What does all of this mean? And does it have anything to do with the environment? The end of the ad promises: “To be continued . . .

“It’s billionaires fighting with billionaires — Tom Steyer fighting with the Koch brothers,” said David Kochel, a veteran Iowa political consultant who has informally advised Ernst. “People cannot relate to what they’re talking about in that ad. It’s drawn up by people who’ve spent their entire lives in Washington and just don’t get what the real experiences and lives of people are. It’s so completely out of touch and so far-fetched that it’ll never work. It’s a huge waste of money.”

That remains to be seen, but the frustration and confusion many campaigns are feeling about outside spending — even by their allies — are certain.

Super PACs and other independent groups are barred from directly coordinating with candidates. In this election cycle, they have spent upward of $140 million on House and Senate races.

“Super PACs are, at this point in the election, the majority advertiser,” said Jonathan Symonds, executive vice president of Ace Metrix, a Silicon Valley-based firm that analyzes advertising. “Increasingly, because of the velocity of new [ads] and the number of different entities that are in these races, it is hard to know what is effectively and ineffectively conveying an issue.”

In North Carolina’s closely fought Senate race, Symonds said, 15 outside organizations have put up television ads this year, on issues such as abortion, health care, the environment and government spending. In Louisiana’s Senate contest, 10 outside groups have been on the airwaves.

All of this further unravels the fraying democratic process, many political professionals argue.

“It’s one of the major problems with the current campaign finance system. A candidate is no longer the loudest speaker in his or her own campaign,” Link said. “I don’t think it’s good for candidates. I don’t think it’s good for voters.”

He argued that it would be healthier just to allow unlimited contributions to the campaigns themselves, with full and immediate disclosure.

In 2012, conservative super PACs outspent liberal ones by better than 2 to 1, helping offset the financial advantage held by President Obama’s reelection campaign. But it was a development that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s operation did not entirely welcome.

“They didn’t have access to what our plans were — that in three weeks, we’re going to give ‘X’ speech — or feedback we’re getting on the ground, or focus groups,” said Stuart Stevens, who was Romney’s chief strategist. “It’s a terrible feeling inside a campaign to have all of this out there and not have any control of it. To be sitting there waking up to ads that are about our campaign, and we have no idea that they are coming, no idea what they are. And they’re bigger than our ad buy.”

Philosophical objections were not the only reason Obama’s campaign initially discouraged spending by super PACs on its behalf, said David Axelrod, who was Stevens’s counterpart in the president’s campaign.

“It was also a concern that you want to have control of your own message,” Axelrod said.

The one pro-Democratic super PAC that Obama’s campaign endorsed ended up causing one of its biggest headaches. Priorities USA Action ran an ad suggesting that Romney’s company Bain Capital had caused a woman’s death by closing the steel plant where her husband worked.

“Someone else’s decision hijacked the dialogue,” Axelrod recalled. “We spent an awful lot of time talking about and denouncing and getting blamed for an ad that ran twice.”

“No matter who’s running the ad, it all comes out on your account,” he added. “There’s a real concern when other players come in.”

Steyer’s new ad in Iowa was produced by GMMB, which was the lead agency in both of Obama’s presidential campaigns.

Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist working with NextGen, said the group opted for an un­or­tho­dox approach to break through the other noise. He predicted that its efficacy will become clear as future advertising develops a narrative arc with compelling characters.

Lehane added that the ads are based on sophisticated research that can pinpoint the concerns of the persuadable voters whom he called “super-shifters” and reach them through the media outlets they frequent.

Most independent groups, he noted, use bland, generic approaches. “You turn the local news on every night, and you can’t distinguish the ad that’s running in Michigan from the ad that’s running in Florida,” Lehane said.

Others agree.

“Most of those independent expenditures are bureaucrat-based, and everything turns out the same. It’s committee-think,” said Fred Davis, a Republican consultant known for his memorable, offbeat ads. “In the normal advertising world, you don’t do everything alike. You claw for attention.”

Republican Senate candidate Joni Ernst (R) of Iowa has released a new TV ad saying she'll know how to cut pork in Washington. (YouTube: Joni Ernst)

In Iowa, Ernst herself has set the standard for pushing the envelope, with a spot in which she boasted about her experience castrating hogs and promised to “make ’em squeal” in Washington. The ad took off on YouTube and cable television, bringing the underdog state senator from the back of the pack in a crowded field and putting her in position to win the nomination.

Businessman and first-time candidate David Perdue, who won Georgia’s Republican Senate nomination, had a similar breakout with a Davis-produced ad that portrayed his four opponents as wailing babies.

In his first campaign ad, David Perdue, who defeated establishment favorite Rep. Jack Kingston to win the Republican nomination for Senate in Georgia on Tuesday, used crying babies — lots of them — as a memorable metaphor for bad behavior in Washington. (YouTube: David Perdue)

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce got behind his runoff opponent, Rep. Jack Kingston, with a $2.3 million ad campaign. However, “the Chamber of Commerce did very normal-looking ads for Jack Kingston. They didn’t overcome the babies,” Davis said.

Still, Davis is skeptical about the NextGen campaign. “You’ve got to get their attention, but then you’ve got to give them a message a Wal-Mart greeter could understand. I’m in politics, and I didn’t understand it,” he said about the opening spot.

Philip Rucker contributed to this report.

Karen Tumulty is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where she received the 2013 Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting.
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