TV air wars in VA gov’s race? Not so much


Tuesday's Virginia gubernatorial election is ground zero for partisan strategists hoping to gain enough momentum to carry their party through the 2014 midterms and beyond. Outside groups are spending furiously, as a win in the truly 'purple' Commonwealth could serve as a springboard for future electoral victories. Two of the biggest storylines in the Virginia race (aside from the much-publicized scandals) have been the role of women and Hispanic voters. Ads from Planned Parenthood and Democrat Terry McAuliffe's campaign have blasted Republican nominee Ken Cuccinelli (currently the state's attorney general) for his stances on abortion, contraceptives and divorce. Interestingly, less money appears to be devoted to wooing Hispanics, at least when it comes to TV ads. 

Ad files collected by Sunlight from the largest Spanish language TV station in the Washington area — the state's largest media market, and the one with the highest percentage of Hispanic viewers — suggest there's been little competition for the state's burgeoning Latino vote. As of the week before the election, there were only three ad buys for the gubernatorial race in WFDC's 2013 political ad file (compared to scores for other area stations). All were in support of McAuliffe — two were purchased directly by his campaign and and one Spanish-language ad by People for The American Way (see an example below), a liberal 'dark money' group supporting the Democrat. 

The relative pittance spent to attract the Hispanic vote contrasts sharply with the efforts underway to court other constituencies; the buy at WFDC totalled $105,115 in a race that has drawn millions in advertising from outside groups.  Data on advertising expenditures indicate that the majority of this outside spending came from well-financed special interests with narrow policy agendas. The vast majority of these outside dollars are supporting McAuliffe. A review of the race's top outside spenders — compiled by the Virginia Public Access Project —  combined with political advertisements gathered by Sunlight's Political Ad Hawk and data from Influence Explorer, sheds a little more light on the strategies of the outside groups jockeying for Virginians' votes. These figures represent the ad money spent at the major news affiliates in the state's four biggest markets. Though not all-inclusive, these numbers provide a reasonable picture of the Virginia ad wars.

Here's a look at some of the top-spending outside groups and links to some of their ads. Estimates on spending come from VPAP, which has been totalling spending in four of Virginia's seven TV markets.

NextGen Climate Action (Virginia Climate Voters): $2,400,585

The NextGen Climate Action Committee — the super PAC behind Virginia Climate Voters — is the brainchild of former hedge fund manager Tom Steyer. After retiring from a lucrative career at Farrallon Capital Management, Steyer turned his attention to political advocacy and quickly became one of the left's highest-spending political activists. His national efforts have mostly revolved around environmental issues and his foray into the Commonwealth race is no different: Virgina Climate Voters' ads have hammered Cuccinelli for his climate change skepticism and his office's investigation of a University of Virginia scientist during his tenure as state Attorney General.

The super PAC has become a formidable player on the national stage thanks in large part to contributions from the group's billionaire founder: Follow the Unlimited Money shows that in the year 2013, Steyer had personally contributed $4.25 million to the committee as of Sept. 12. 

Recently, NextGen spent big in the Massachusetts special election for U.S. Senate, pouring hundreds of thousands into the race in support of then-congressman Ed Markey, D-Mass., over primary challenger Stephen Lynch and Republican Gabriel Gomez. Steyer jumped in to the race — in spite of Markey's own protests — over Lynch's support of the Keystone XL pipeline. Markey's won the Senate race.

Independence USA PAC: $1,568,550

Former NYC mayor and billionaire media mogul Michael Bloomberg (pictured left) has become a national pariah for guns rights groups and a hero to those pushing for tighter restrictions on firearms. A Republican turned independent, Bloomberg is channeling his considerable fortune nationally through his Independence USA super PAC and is targeting lawmakers both Democratic and Republican lawmakers who have opposed gun control efforts.

The gun control debate hits home in Virginia, where on April 16, 2007 a shooter killed 32 people at the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg. In spite of a history of mental illness, the killer passed multiple background checks to purchase the guns later used in the shooting. The images of perpretators from several of the worst mass shootings in recent years are flashed during an ad buy from Independence USA that attacks Cuccinelli for his unwillingness to close Virginia's "gun show loophole," which may allow individuals to purchase guns without undergoing a background check.

Like NextGen, Independence USA receives the bulk of its funds from its wealthy founder.

Bloomberg's most recent electoral effort — the Colorado recall elections — ultimately failed: Two Democratic legislators who faced recall votes over their support of tightening gun restrictions were booted from office despite hundreds of thousands of dollars in outside spending from the mayor.

National Education Association: $519,054

The public school teachers union — the "nation's largest professional employee organization" according to its website — is a major player in almost every aspect of the political sphere. From K Street, to the regulatory process, to the more than $382 million in campaign contributions it has doled out over the years, the NEA is one of the nation's most powerful voices when it comes to shaping education legislation. 

Cuccinelli supports charter schools and vouchers for Virginia students — in opposition to the NEA's stance — and while McAuliffe has not shared his stance on charters he has benefitted from supportive ads for his plans to decrease class sizes and the amount of standardized testing in schools. 

Influence Explorer data shows the union gives most of its campaign cash to political action committees, the candidates it supports are overwhelmingly Democratic. 

Planned Parenthood Action Fund: $462,215 

The polarizing women's health group has been a boon to McAuliffe's gubernatorial hopes, unleashing numerous attack ads against  Cuccinelli. Cecile Richards (pictured right), Planned Parenthood's president, wrote in a Huffington Post op-ed that Cuccinelli's socially conservative stance on abortion and contraceptives is to blame for his lagging support among women — calling the Republican slate "the most anti-woman ticket we've ever seen from a major party." 

A recent poll from Christopher Newport University shows McAuliffe leading Cuccinelli among women voters by 16 points. Decisive support from the female demographic may be the key to McAuliffe's success — polls show him leading by seven points overall.

On K Street, unsurprisingly, two of Planned Parenthood's most frequent lobbying issues are "Health Issues" and "Family, Abortion & Adoption." While on the campaign trail the group supports numerous high-profile Democrats and has given over $130,000 in hard money contributions to Barack Obama.

Most recently, its super PAC spent more than $75,000 in independent expenditures to help Markey claim the U.S. Senate seat in Massachusetts.

Common Sense Virginia PAC: $387,080

Common Sense Virginia, the only Republican-leaning outside spending group to make the list of top five outside spenders in the gubernatorial race, has targeted Terry McAuliffe over his budget plan, which the group contends will raise taxes on all Virginians.

However, the Wall Street Journal's Washington Wire reports that the conservative group diverted $190,000 in funds it had planned to use in supporting the Cuccinelli ticket in order to help Republican candidates further down the ticket. 

(Note: While VPAP included Americans for Prosperity in its list of the largest spenders in outside ads, we did not do so for this report as AFP has not bought any ads in Virginia that advocate for or against Cuccinelli or McAuliffe)

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons