High-priced ad war for seats in Senate goes coast to coast

Saturday, June 1, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Attacking early in a key Senate race, Democrats used a midwinter television ad to accuse Elizabeth Dole of attending "a secret fund raiser" with former Enron chairman Kenneth Lay days after deadly terrorist attacks.

Within hours, Republicans rushed their own commercial to the same North Carolina stations. It blamed Democrats for "another smear campaign, this time attacking Elizabeth Dole, former head of the Red Cross, questioning her patriotism."

The February advertising exchange by the parties' senatorial committees, absurdly early by previous campaign standards, was a harbinger of commercials to come. With five months remaining to the election, an expensive ad war is spreading from Maine to Oregon, a reflection of the stakes involved in the battle for Senate control and the money stockpiled in the twilight of a free-spending campaign era.

Thus far, the National Republican Senatorial Committee has advertised in 11 states at a cost of about $3.3 million. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has spent roughly the same amount, in six states, including more than $1.3 million to support Sen. Paul Wellstone in Minnesota.

Jim Jordan, executive director of the Democratic committee, said the early advertising is the result of "a bigger budget, cheaper states and tighter races," all within the framework of a Senate that is divided narrowly along party lines.

"You have a game of chess going on where basically Democrats are trying to position themselves and Republicans are trying to position themselves" for the fall, said Chris LaCivita, political director for the GOP committee.

Democrats hold 50 seats, Republicans have 49, with one independent in the current Senate.

The barrage of party-paid ads is expected to continue through Election Day, possibly never to return if a new campaign finance law survives court challenges.

Effective the day after the Nov. 5 election, national parties will be banned from raising soft-money, the unlimited donations from unions, corporations and individuals that help pay for so-called "issue ads" that stop short of advocating the election or defeat of any candidate. Instead, they typically extol or attack a candidate.

Issue ads, which supplement commercials paid for by the candidates' campaigns, are a relatively new phenomenon. President Clinton made pioneering use of them in 1996 to aid his re-election. By 1998, both parties relied on them for the final weeks of the campaign. In 2000, Senate Democrats purchased their first issue ad in late June; for Republicans, it was early July.

According to strategists in both parties, the ads have numerous uses, including testing themes for the fall campaign, boosting or attacking a candidate, and providing early funds from donors.

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