Minnesotans are getting a taste of what it’s like to be one of the most crucial battleground states this election year. How so? Their favorite TV programs, sporting contests and digital platforms are about to be awash in political ads.
Following a post-primary lull, campaigns and outside groups are suddenly spending heavily to sell their candidates with soft, gauzy shots of family — and dark, ominous warnings about the opposition.
The millions being spent on ads reflect the stakes of the election both here in Minnesota and nationally.
“There’s no way around it: The path to the majority goes through Minnesota,” said Gina Countryman, executive director of the Minnesota Action Network, an outside group trying to elect a Republican governor.
As they wrestle for control of the U.S. House, both parties are focused on two greater Minnesota congressional districts currently held by Democrats and two suburban metro districts currently held by Republicans.
Of a dozen ads released by the National Republican Congressional Committee in targeted districts this week, three of them are in Minnesota, as first reported by NBC News.
With the four targeted House districts, two U.S. Senate contests and open races for governor and attorney general, Minnesota will see more big ad spending than in any year since 2008, Countryman said.
Among some of the ads released in just the past few days:
• Pete Stauber, a Republican running in the hotly contested Eighth Congressional District against Democrat Joe Radinovich, is pictured with his family and the various uniforms Stauber has worn, including those of a pro hockey player and police commander in Duluth.
• Also on the hockey front: State Sen. Karin Housley, the Republican running against Democratic U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, is at a hockey rink talking about her values when her husband, an NHL coach, skates up to give her a fist bump.
• Smith released a new ad showing the one-time General Mills marketer hanging out with farmers.
• Dan Feehan, the Democratic candidate in the First Congressional District, released a new ad Tuesday — the anniversary of 9/11 — focusing on his Army career that included two combat tours in Iraq. He’s getting hit from a Washington group that wants to elect Republican Jim Hagedorn.
• The campaign finance group End Citizens United is touting Democrat Dean Phillips over U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen in the Third Congressional District, including $540,000 on TV and $200,000 on digital ads. Yes, it’s a paradox: The group is spending big to elect candidates promising to get big money out of politics.
• Paulsen and two D.C.-based Republican groups are using TV ads to attack Phillips for not providing workers at the two coffee shops he owns with health insurance. Phillips hits back in his own ad, looking into the camera and saying the claims aren’t true. (Phillips’ first coffee shop didn’t provide health insurance but does now. Paulsen and Republicans are against requiring small businesses to provide health insurance to their employees.)
• U.S. Rep. Jason Lewis refers ever-so-slightly to recent CNN stories about his radio career in which he made demeaning comments about women and black people, and he says he’s stood up to Republicans as an “independent voice.”
• Angie Craig, Lewis’ opponent in the Second Congressional District, highlights college costs while emphasizing non-college opportunities for people like one of her four sons.
• An outside GOP group attacks Craig for her work as an executive with St. Jude Medical. The ad doesn’t name St. Jude, now known as Abbott, but touts lawsuits and headlines that portray the company as a new Enron, rather than the kind of medical device company usually touted by Minnesota politicians of both parties.
What’s missing? The governor’s race.
Tim Walz of the DFL and Republican Jeff Johnson are constrained by both spending caps and depleted funds from competitive primaries, but they’ll have to start spending soon. Their reticence hasn’t stopped outside groups from spending, including the DFL-leaning Alliance for a Better Minnesota, which is spending in the high six-figures to attack Johnson on the airwaves.
Minnesotans will even see ads in legislative races. The Washington Post reported this week that an outside Democratic group is spending $10 million on digital ads in five states — including Minnesota — where control of the Legislature is at stake. It’s part of an effort to score better outcomes in redistricting battles after the 2020 Census.
How much money is being spent in all? Although contracts are filed with the Federal Communications Commission, tracking all of them can be difficult, and campaigns are loath to share details that could divulge strategy.
But a week of spending by Craig on WCCO offers some clues. Her contract for just that one local broadcast network, for one week at the end of September, is nearly $30,000. That ranges from $340 for a spot on early morning news to $2,500 for the evening news. Splashy live events are pricier, with an ad on an NFL game on CBS costing $12,500, and the finale of “Big Brother” going for $3,000.
Political operatives say the landscape is shifting, with more thought and resources going to digital spending, which can be targeted more efficiently and which is where many consumers are headed. This includes YouTube, Facebook, Spotify and Hulu, among others.
“There’s a significant number of voters who get their news and information from TV. But you have to communicate on digital channels. It’s a transition moment, but both are important,” said Jeff Blodgett, a longtime DFL operative.
Both Blodgett and Sheldon Clay, who does corporate advertising for brands like Subaru, said campaigns should focus more on quality and less on quantity.
Clay, who has volunteered his services to the DFL, described a frequent playbook, which he dates back to George H.W. Bush’s successful 1988 campaign: “The scary music, the grainy pictures, the same guy’s voice. As a human it’d be nice see it not work for once,” said Clay, who is group creative director for Carmichael Lynch in Minneapolis.
Regardless of the quality of the ads, Minnesotans should expect to see more of them, Countryman said.
“If you’re a suburban woman in the Second and Third (congressional districts), you’re going to be hammered in every possible manner of political communication,” Countryman said. “If it seems like a lot now, hold on tight — there’s more coming.”