Big Wallets, Cheap Media Markets

At WaPo’s Plum Line, Jonathan Bernstein makes a simple but important observation about Deb Fischer’s upset win in Nebraska’s GOP Senate primary:

This outcome reveals a key fact about the post-Citizens United landscape. We are going to see a lot more outcomes like this one. Outside money matters more in Congressional races than presidential, and more in primaries than general elections. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but for better or worse it’s the world that we live in now. And as we’ve just discovered, a single donor can be responsible for the election of a general election Senate candidate — or even, if Fischer wins, a Senator.

Jonathan’s alluding to the latest-minute $200k buy made by Chicago Cubs owner Joe Ricketts for two ads, one boosting Fischer (who was already surging in the polls) and the other drawing attention to ethics issues involving long-time front-runner Jon Bruning. $200k will buy you some serious time in markets like Omaha. And it will in other down-ballot, low-cost political venues shortly before the general election. Just as importantly, it’s generally accepted that paid broadcast media is a bigger deal anyway in down-ballot races where the candidates are not as well known and voter allegiances are more fluid.

Nebraska also shows that the strategic deployment of outside money can be critical. At another corner of WaPo, Jennifer Rubin claims that Fischer’s win shows “Money is overrated,” because “Fischer was outspent $440,000 to Bruning’s $3.6 million.” This ignores outside money entirely, but more fundamentally, ignores the dynamics of the race. The heavy attacks on Bruning financed by pro-Stenberg groups like the Club for Growth and the Senate Conservative Fund pretty much neutralized Bruning’s own spending without helping Stenberg, putting the unscathed Fischer in a position to benefit from Ricketts’ perfectly-timed salvo.

Perhaps it’s just a matter of Nebraska’s proximity to Kansas, but this phenomenon reminds me of the very first time I became aware of the power of last-minute spending by shadowy “independent” groups: in 1996, when a previously unknown entity called Triad Management (which turned out to be a vehicle for the Koch Brothers) dumped money into late attack ads on Democratic Senate candidate Jill Docking and turned what looked to be a close Docking win into a victory for Republican Sam Brownback. Docking basically didn’t know what hit her until it was too late. I fear we will see a lot of this sort of thing in October, particularly in places where big wallets carry a super-sized wallop.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.