Independent organizations big spenders in final weeks of negative campaign advertising


Iowa State Daily/Tyler Kingkade

Iowa law requires all political advertising contracts to be made public by their broadcasters, although most do not publish them online. Total expenditures are available by the state on the Web.

Tyler Kingkade

Negative advertising dominates local television stations, and in the first election cycle after the landmark Supreme Court ruling Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, independent groups are fueling millions of dollars behind the TV ads. The case allows corporations to put more money directly into political ads.

According to the advertising records of KCCI, WHO-TV and WOI, the American Future Fund, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, National Organization for Marriage and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have all been major spenders in TV ads in the final weeks of the campaign season.

The conservative Des Moines-based American Future Fund spent millions against Democratic candidates, including Rep. Bruce Braley of eastern Iowa. In an ad titled “Mosque,” Braley was attacked for supporting the right of an Islamic cultural center to be located in Manhattan near ground zero. The producer behind the ad, Larry McCarthy, is the same man behind the infamous racially tinged “Willie Horton” ad against Democrat Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential campaign.

The AFF, while technically based in Des Moines, has no official headquarters other than a P.O. box. Its members include people from Mitt Romney’s 2008 presidential campaign, including Tim Albrecht, who is now the Branstad/Reynolds communications director. Terry Branstad served as chairman of AFF’s Lecture Series prior to his gubernatorial campaign.

Several campaign watchdog groups filed formal complaints against AFF for claims it inappropriately filed as a tax-exempt advocacy group.

AFF is spending between $4,000 and $8,000 on ads targeting Attorney General Tom Miller during high-rated news programs over “Obamacare.” AFF spent $31,000 on 37 spots for one ad in October on WHO.

Countering that effort, the Committee for Justice and Fairness spends up to $40,000 in a week on one anti-Brenna Findley ad. Findley is the former chief of staff for Steve King, Republican nominee for attorney general and wants to join the health care reform lawsuit.

Another conservative group, the National Organization for Marriage, spent $19,000 with KCCI in the final two weeks on an ad against the retention of justices, mainly during news shows but also six spots during the “Late Show with David Letterman” and four during “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” NOM spent $42,000 in September, targeting “Oprah,” news and prime-time television, which can carry a price tag of $3,000 for 30 seconds.

In total, NOM has spent nearly half a million dollars on anti-retention ads in addition to sponsoring a statewide bus tour.

Citizens United even put in thousands toward robocalls against judicial retention.

On WOI, NOM bought 33 spots for $10,000. NOM began airing commercials against the Varnum v. Brien ruling in the summer of 2009, casting the legalization of gay marriage as something threatening to businesses and doctors, and described parents who can’t stop schools from teaching children being gay is OK. It was all cited extensively in a letter from an attorney representing the group.

The Republican-friendly U.S. Chamber of Commerce put $27,000 into an ad in early October on WHO. It also spent $51,000 on 62 spots of another ad that ran during NFL Sunday games — it cost $3,000 for one spot.

The U.S. Chamber was one of the few spending on ads during soaps, totaling 41 spots for one ad in a month from Sept. 27 to Oct. 26, which equals $78,000. It spent $31,000 on 31 spots for another ad, and $31,000 on 29 spots for another ad attacking Rep. Leonard Boswell of Iowa’s 3rd District.

Who went more negative

“We’ve done everything we could the past two years to push Democrats to be bolder, and did everything we could this election cycle to reward progressives who were bold,” said Stephanie Taylor, Progressive Change Campaign Committee co-founder. “Our focus this election cycle was on making smart, strategic choices about which candidates to support — prioritizing progressive candidates who have proved they are on our side.”

PCCC and Democracy For America ran an attack ad, focusing on various comments Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) made in recent years. They focused on getting this ad aired around programs more women are likely to watch because a couple of the quotes in the commercial included Grassley talking about “living off the public tit.”

Although WHO refused to air the commercial, citing some quotes were taken out of context. In the contracts for KCCI, citations of each statement were included.

A new Wesleyan Media Project study concluded 2010 actually has been the most negative campaign season in recent election cycles.

The DCCC has been one of the biggest spenders in local TV ads, many of them attacking Republican candidates like Brad Zaun, a Republican running for the U.S. House of Representatives.

The DCCC spent $19,000 on 40 spots for one ad on WHO-TV in the last five weeks of the campaign, and $39,000 on 45 spots for another ad on WHO-TV, including during an NFL pregame show, many during the “Today Show” and “The Rachael Ray Show” and within WHO News at noon. The group spent a lot in the final month on KCCI — around $66,000 on one ad in some weeks, targeted to news programs, the “Dr. Phil Show,” “Oprah” and “The Price Is Right.”

“Democratic attacks are disproportionately focused on personal characteristics of their opponents,” said Michael Franz, associate professor of government at Bowdoin College and co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project. “In fact, Democrats are three times as likely to include personal attacks in their negative spots compared to Republicans.”

The study found many commercials aired by candidates are more likely to be positive, while those supported by independent committees typically make attacks on a candidate.

“Republicans have been more likely to attack in the waning days of this campaign than Democrats, though Democrats cannot claim the moral high ground, as half of their own ads have contained attacks,” said Travis Ridout, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project and associate professor of political science at Washington State University.

Many of the local candidates running for state legislature in Iowa have attacked Democrats who supported federal health care reform, despite the fact they did not vote on it and was not something that would be an issue within their role in state government.