Last-minute TV ad buys raise the stakes in Massachusetts Senate race

By Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 18, 2010

Just how big are the stakes in the Massachusetts Senate race? Independent and party groups were set to spend nearly $5 million on television ads in the final weeks leading up to Tuesday's special election between state Attorney General Martha Coakley (D) and state Sen. Scott Brown (R).

According to ad-buy information provided to the Fix, there are 13 -- yes, 13 -- groups paying for ads in the race's final days, with Democratic groups outspending Republican-aligned by more than $1 million.

Coakley's ad advantage comes from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which is set to spend $1.4 million on ads in the final week of the race -- a staggering sum given the overwhelming Democratic tilt of the Bay State, and yet another sign of how worried the party is. (The National Republican Senatorial Committee is not running ads in the state.)

The other major Democratic groups in the mix are labor-affiliated. The Service Employees International Union is up with $549,000 in ads, and Citizens for Strength and Security, which is funded by unions, is spending $425,000 on ads.

On the Republican side, there are more groups airing television commercials -- including the Chamber of Commerce and a group affiliated with the conservative Tea Party movement -- but they are spending just about $1.6 million.

Add those numbers to the $2.2 million Brown is spending on television and the $1.9 million by Coakley, and the total in the contest's final days is near $10 million.

Democratic-aligned groups have tried to link Brown to national Republicans unpopular with Massachusetts Democrats, including former president George W. Bush and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin. The conservatives' ads have gone after Coakley on taxes and national security.

So crowded are the airwaves that Massachusetts television stations -- the biggest winners from the competition -- were telling groups late last week that there was simply no time left to buy.

The effect of all that spending may well be minimal, given how crowded the airwaves have been over the past few months. With so many competing messages, it's tough for either side to influence voters already overwhelmed or annoyed at the heavy ad traffic.

"Rule number one in advertising [is] if your message isn't seen, you are wasting your money," said Fred Davis, a Republican media consultant who ran the ad team for Sen. John McCain's presidential bid. "Be big and bold. Be different."

Biden's time-biding

For months, Senate Democrats have been waiting for Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden to announce his candidacy for the seat vacated by his father, Vice President Biden.

And for just as long, Democrats have insisted that Beau Biden was a near-certain candidate, explaining the delay as a natural development after his return from military service in Iraq in late 2009.

In recent days, however, Democrats have acknowledged privately that Biden's timetable to make up his mind about the race has been seriously affected by his work on widespread allegations of pedophilia against a Delaware pediatrician. The case, which broke just before Christmas, is consuming huge amounts of Biden's time and pushing back a decision on the Senate, according to those familiar with Biden's thinking.

The problem with further delay for Biden -- and Senate Democrats -- is twofold. First, it allows Rep. Mike Castle (R), who entered the race in October, time to collect cash; he raised $1.1 million in the inal quarter of 2009 nd ended the year with $1.7 million in the bank. Second, the longer Biden waits -- no matter the reason -- the more uncertainty enters the process, particularly given the negative political environment for Democrats, as evidenced by the turn of events in the Senate special election in Massachusetts.

Republicans are doing everything they can to encourage those doubts, even floating the idea that Castle, 72 , is interested only in serving out the remaining four years of the term and would not seek a full term in 2014. Castle has made no such pronouncement publicly.

Asked about Biden's time-biding, Eric Schultz, communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, expressed confidence. "We fully hope and expect Beau Biden to run for the Senate," he said. "He bravely served our country in Iraq, returned before holidays, and is taking the time he needs with his family to make this decision. We fully respect him taking the time he needs."

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