Broadcast TV buys offer glimpse of GOP campaign outreach strategies four weeks ahead of primary

04/19/2015 06:13 PM

As the final four weeks of Kentucky’s Republican gubernatorial primary approach, three candidates will have to overcome a mountain of cash spent on the airwaves by multimillionaire Hal Heiner.

Heiner, a former Louisville Metro Council member and one-time mayoral candidate, has spent $1.1 million to boost his profile across broadcast airwaves, sans the Cincinnati market, since Jan. 19, according to an analysis of spending records filed with the Federal Communications Commission. For every ad on broadcast aired by opponents James Comer and Matt Bevin, Heiner has put more — six and four spots on the air, respectively.

“We know clearly from a lot of past races in Kentucky that the person who spends the most money doesn’t necessarily win the election, but it’s very difficult to win the election without the necessary money,” said GOP consultant Ted Jackson.

“And if Hal is running at the level he appears to be — his campaign as well as the PAC supporting him — that’s very significant for Jamie and Bevin as we head into the last month of this campaign.”

The sheer amount of cash spent by Heiner and his backers may be daunting, but the campaigns’ activities between now and the May 19 primary will be “more important than what has happened in the previous three months,” Jackson added.

So far Bevin, Comer and Heiner are the only candidates on the television airwaves. Former Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Will T. Scott told Pure Politics Thursday his campaign will buy TV time as the primary nears but will likely rely more on radio advertising.

Broadcast advertising isn’t the only way candidates are reaching out to voters. Cable and radio ads, direct mail pieces, and get-out-the-vote efforts will also play key roles in the primary’s outcome, but broadcast buys offer a pricey glimpse into the regions each candidate feels are important to their electoral chances.

Hal Heiner

Heiner, who has loaned his campaign $4.2 million thus far, has cast the widest television advertising net among Kentucky’s GOP gubernatorial hopefuls, and signs points to his team ratcheting up the pressure on state airwaves over the next two weeks.

According to FCC filings posted Friday, which were not included in Heiner’s $1.1 million year-to-date sum, Heiner’s campaign has bought $260,500 in airtime from Monday through May 3 on many networks that’ve previously aired his commercials. That two-week total, higher than amounts spent by Comer and Bevin this year, will likely rise as stations file ad buys with the FCC.

He’s the only candidate on the air in the Paducah, Evansville, Ind., and Huntington, W.Va., markets, which aren’t Republican-rich areas in terms of registered voters. His ads began airing in Paducah and Evansville March 10 and Huntington April 6, according to FCC filings.

Heiner “must believe that he has the resources necessary to do the full blitz in the primary markets” of Louisville, Lexington, Bowling Green and Hazard, said Republican consultant Les Fugate.

“You want to be heavy in those particular markets if you want to reach the vast majority of Republican primary voters,” he said. Other markets, he added, “reach too few people, comparatively, who will be voting in a primary” or “are extraordinarily expensive — Cincinnati — and may not be the best use of resources.”

“No one else is up in the West Virginia market specifically, so he may think that he can get some extra voters there that he may not be able to reach otherwise just because he’s gone up in that market,” Fugate said.

The decision to target far western and eastern markets may expose Heiner to conservative Democrats ahead of the general election should he win his party’s nomination.

Heiner told Pure Politics before Thursday’s Louisville Tea Party debate he’s engaging all voters on the campaign trail and in advertising, and his eyes are starting to drift beyond May 19 to Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway, who has drawn token opposition in his party’s primary.

“I will tell you I’m looking past May 19,” Heiner said. “I’m ready to take on Jack Conway in this general election. We need a different approach; we don’t need a Frankfort approach. We need a different approach as we go forward beginning December of this year when we have a new governor.”

But Heiner will be wise to stay focused on his GOP opponents, political observers say.

“I can’t imagine anybody at this point’s thinking about the general,” Jackson said.

James Comer

Comer, Kentucky’s agriculture commissioner, has maintained a relatively low profile on state airwaves, eschewing the Louisville market and instead focusing on the Lexington and Bowling Green markets starting in mid-March and the Hazard market starting April 8.

Comer told Pure Politics he’s reached a statewide audience through cable ad buys — largely on the Fox News Channel to target conservative voters — and emphasized his base of support in Lexington and Bowling Green on network television thus far. Time Warner Cable records show Comer bought $13,209 in cable time in Louisville and Lexington from April 15 through Sunday.

He plans to extend his advertising buys in the final weeks of the campaign, and FCC records show he’s spent more than $151,000 on broadcast buys this year.

“The last four weeks we’re going to increase our television buy,” Comer said before Thursday’s debate. “We’ve been very fortunate to have raised money from thousands of Kentuckians in all 120 counties across the state, and like a good conservative I’ve saved that money until the end so we’ll be increasing our ad buy.

“… The good thing for me running against two multimillionaires is that they’ve spent a lot of money, but very few people have been paying attention to the race.”

Observers say Comer is at a financial disadvantage against two wealthy Louisville candidates in Heiner and Bevin.

When asked about Comer’s inactivity on Louisville network television, Jackson said when a candidate must make decisions based on finances, sometimes focusing on other, cheaper markets makes sense.

“I’m sure he’d love nothing more than to be up on TV in Louisville, but he probably can’t afford it and maybe their strategy, again I’m speculating because I don’t know firsthand, but I think you might say they’ve to some extent conceded Jefferson County to Heiner,” Jackson said of Comer.

Many politicos expected Comer to hang onto his resources ahead of the final weeks in the primary, and as the only candidate on television unable to self-finance, “I don’t think a lot of people expected him to be up with major ad buys at this point,” Fugate said.

“I don’t think there’s any surprise that he’s not there yet, and plus you’ve probably heard him say many times that he’s relying on his volunteer network a lot more,” he said, “And probably starting at the beginning of the race who had the best political network, there’d be no question it was Jamie Comer.”

A solid grassroots effort can help overcome a spending disadvantage “as long as he has enough money to put up enough ads at the end.” Fugate added.

Matt Bevin

Bevin, a Louisville investment professional best known for challenging Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in last year’s U.S. Senate primary, has not been on the TV airwaves long, but he quickly emerged as the second-highest spender among Republican gubernatorial candidates.

FCC records show Bevin has bought nearly $240,000 in the Cincinnati, Louisville, Lexington, Bowling Green and Hazard broadcast markets starting April 3. He has also secured more than $14,000 in Time Warner Cable time in the northern Kentucky, Louisville and Lexington markets from April 13 through April 26, according to cable records.

Northern Kentucky’s turnout numbers have traditionally lagged behind the statewide average despite high numbers of registered Republican voters — 12.7 percent turnout in Boone, Kenton and Campbell counties in 2007 and 9.2 percent in 2011.

Statewide candidates typically avoid the expensive Cincinnati television market for that reason in hopes of boosting their electoral chances elsewhere, said Fugate.

“He must believe he has the resources to carry out a significant campaign throughout the rest of the state, one,” he said of Bevin, who loaned his U.S. Senate campaign $1.25 million.

“Two, that’s where he does best. So what he’s probably trying to do is remind people, ‘Hey, I’m here and there’s an election coming up and you need to turn out for me,’ so it may be part of his turnout efforts because all the media in northern Kentucky does not really pay attention to what goes on down in Kentucky. It’s all focused towards Columbus and Cincinnati, so it takes a lot more effort there to remind voters about elections.”

Bevin cited his support in the region — plus the fact that northern Kentucky Republicans, regardless of number and turnout, will vote in the May 19 primary — as reasons for his campaign’s spending on Cincinnati television.

He believes “the right thing to do is to make sure they understand our message,” he said.

“I’m taking the high road,” Bevin said before Thursday’s debate, noting that he’s also airing cable and radio spots. “I’m advertising what I would do as governor. I’m being very specific. I’m laying out action items in a specific plan, and I certainly want to take that message to northern Kentucky and every other part of the state as well.”

Based on his experience in statewide campaigns, Jackson said a general rule of thumb is “it’s very, very difficult to make a primary voter out of someone who doesn’t have a history being a primary voter.”

“Matt Bevin doesn’t have a lot of political experience, and a lot of people get caught up in campaigns with some notion of, ‘Well by God, I know what to do and I have an instinct and I’m going to follow my gut,’ and a lot of that can come into play with candidates who don’t have a lot of experience,” Jackson said, again noting he does not have firsthand knowledge of the campaign’s strategy.

“… This is all conjecture on my part, but it is a little suspect why he would be spending money there at first blush.”

Outside spenders

As has been the case in recent election cycles, Republican gubernatorial candidates aren’t alone on the airwaves.

Kentuckians for Growth, Opportunity and Prosperity, a political action committee backing Comer, began airing a positive Comer spot April 6 that’s set to run through April 26 in the Louisville, Lexington and Bowling Green network markets for more than $410,000, according to FCC filings.

Citizens for a Sound Government, a 501(c )(4) group supporting Heiner, have bashed Comer and Bevin on the broadcast airwaves in Louisville, Lexington, Bowling Green, Evansville, Paducah and Huntington from April 7 through Sunday to the tune of nearly $397,000, FCC filings show. The group also bought $78,788 in the Louisville, Lexington and northern Kentucky Time Warner Cable markets in that time frame.

If polling indicates the attacks against them have swayed voters from their campaigns, Comer and Bevin may have no choice but to respond, or hope someone else does on their behalf, Fugate said.

“My guess is they’re hoping that the super PAC (in their corners) does the responding so that negative advertising’s not pushed on you, particularly for Commissioner Comer,” he said. “He’s going to want to try to get out his message as much as he can because he hasn’t been able to spend as much money putting up his positive message thus far.”

Kevin Wheatley

Kevin Wheatley is a reporter for Pure Politics. He joined cn|2 in September 2014 after five years at The State Journal in Frankfort, where he covered Kentucky government and politics. You can reach him at kevin.wheatley@charter.com or 502-792-1135 and follow him on Twitter at @KWheatley_cn2.

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