If you thought the onslaught of political ads in Utah’s 4th District from 2018 was overwhelming, brace yourself, because even more money is targeted this time around. And the actions of party leaders, including a quick visit by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, show just how competitive this race is, at least for now.
Democratic Rep. Ben McAdams, Republican nominee Burgess Owens and outside groups on both sides recently booked millions of dollars in advertising running now until Election Day. You may have already started to see them.
Republicans clearly view the 4th District seat as a possible pickup in November. They’re not wrong. McAdams is one of the more vulnerable Democrats in Congress. Republicans enjoy a more than 2.5-to-1 party registration advantage in the district, according to the latest voter registration numbers from L2 Political, a political data firm. Democrats also lag behind unaffiliated voters there 2-to-1.
McAdams squeaked past Republican Rep. Mia Love by fewer than 700 votes in 2018. Love carried the seat in 2016 by more than 12 percentage points after her initial victory in 2014 by about 3 points.
It’s clear the television air war, plus the digital advertising battlefield, is going to be hard-fought. According to data provided by Advertising Analytics, the candidates and outside groups booked nearly $7.3 million in television, cable and digital advertising from August through Election Day. For comparison, the total amount of advertising in the race two years ago was just over $5.3 million.
Here’s a secret about political advertising: Just because candidates or organizations reserve TV time doesn’t mean they will use it. Political action committees will shift their advertising dollars around where they think they will do the most good. One more pro tip: If you see PACs or candidates increase spending on a race ahead of the election, it’s a good sign they think it is still winnable. Conversely, pulling advertising can be interpreted as a belief the race is over. Many times PACs will announce they are making a big advertising reservation to generate some positive media coverage only to quietly pull back later in the election cycle.
Owens, whose fundraising lagged far behind McAdams after he secured the GOP nomination in June’s primary, just launched his first TV campaign, purchasing $45,220 in commercials on broadcast television that will run in September. Owens has not yet booked any airtime in October or November. That likely is a sign that he still is working on his fundraising.
But Owens’ campaign is getting a major boost from Republican-affiliated groups.
The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), which is the campaign arm for House Republicans, has reserved just over $1 million in advertising on broadcast and cable television beginning in October. That advertising will likely target McAdams.
Usually super PACs are not allowed to coordinate with candidates, but there is a mechanism allowing the NRCC (and its Democratic counterpart) to coordinate some ad spending with candidates. That’s precisely what they are doing with Owens this month, to the tune of about $200,000. It requires both entities to use a joint disclaimer on the ads. This tool is usually employed when a campaign is cash-strapped. The Owens/NRCC coordinated buy is scheduled for September only, which means Owens will be on his own in October and November.
The Congressional Leadership Fund super PAC, which is affiliated with McCarthy, the House minority leader, is set to drop more than $1.87 million into the district, most of that going toward broadcast advertising.
In another sign that House Republicans sense a pickup opportunity, McCarthy, R-Calif., made a quiet fundraising stop in Salt Lake City on Wednesday to raise money for Owens and Blake Moore, the GOP nominee in the 1st Congressional District. The visit included dinner at a downtown restaurant attended by most of the state’s Republican congressional delegation.
Democrats also are ready to pour cash into advertising to keep McAdams in Congress.
The incumbent has already reserved more than $1.7 million on broadcast and cable television from August to November. That includes $716,000 in October alone. Don’t expect that to be the full extent of McAdams’ advertising spend. Two years ago, his campaign sat on a significant sum of money and used it to reserve most of the remaining available advertising inventory in the final weeks of the campaign to block opponents from using it against him.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s House Majority PAC is ready to join the 4th District fray, too. The group is poised to spend more than $1.25 million on ads from September to November, most of those on traditional broadcast television. The Democratic Campaign Congressional Committee is also ready to spend just over $1 million on ads to support McAdams and oppose Owens.
While both McAdams and Owens may welcome the help from the super PACs getting ready to join the race, there is a danger for the candidates. Federal election rules prohibit coordination between the campaigns and the PACs. The practical result of that ban is candidates have no control over the messages those groups broadcast, and those ads tend to be far more negative than the ones the candidates put out themselves.