Battleground Louisville: Pro-McConnell outside groups help fuel $2.1 million ad blitz

A screenshot from a campaign ad by Matt Bevin for Senate, showing the candidate at his home
Matt Bevin’s campaign committee has spent $650,000 on air time in Louisville alone; image credit: Matt Bevin for Senate, Inc.

If, as expected, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell manages to beat back a challenge in Tuesday’s Kentucky primary election, it will be with a little help from a few well-funded — and, in some cases, undeclared — friends.

An analysis of ads purchased in the Louisville television market, made possible by Political Ad Sleuth and data entry by the Sunlight Foundation, shows that more than $2.1 million in political ad dollars have poured into the market since February 2013, when the first of the ads aimed at either tearing McConnell down or shoring him up began to air. In the TV air-wars, McConnell’s GOP challenger, Matt Bevin, has outspent the veteran senator’s campaign 6-to-1.

But McConnell’s ad deficit has been more than made up by outside groups, including two that spent a combined $602,000 on pro-McConnell ads in the Louisville market. The Kentucky Opportunity Coalition, which has spent more than $346,000 on pro-McConnell ads and Kentuckians for Strong Leadership, a super PAC supporting McConnell. The super PAC has purchased more than $256,000 in ads touting the senator. The Kentucky Opportunity Coalition has declared itself as a 501(c)4 group that, because of its tax status, does not have to register with the FEC or reveal donors. However documents filed with the FEC for the Kentuckians for Strong Leadership and with one of the TV stations where the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition bought ads show that the two groups share a treasurer, Caleb Crosby.

See a chart of the top spending advertisers below:

See the full list of groups buying time for ads on national issues or the Senate race at Louisville TV stations from Jan. 1, 2013 to May 14, 2014 below:

Filings posted on Sunlight’s Real-Time FEC tracker show that McConnell got big TV buys from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Rifle Association in the closing days of the campaign.

All told, the outside groups enabled McConnell to more than make up for the money that Bevin, along with some Tea Party allies, put into the race. This allows the senator to preserve much of his campaign war chest for the fall, when he will face a sure-to-be well-funded Democratic contender, Allison Lundergan Grimes.

Entering data from Political Ad Sleuth, a database of political ad filings posted online at the Federal Communications Commission, has enabled Sunlight’s Reporting Group to put together the clearest picture to date of spending on political TV ads in the Louisville area. Given all the outside groups that have been spending since last year in the high profile Senate race, it was surprising to find that it is actually a candidate topping all other advertisers thus far in the 2014 cycle. According to Sunlight’s analysis of ad contracts, the Matt Bevin for Senate committee has spent several hundred thousand dollars more than any other group on ad buys in the Louisville market.

While our figures generally tracked those of our friends at the Wesleyan Media Project, who used data from Kantar Media/CMAG to estimate how much had been spent in total on broadcast and national cable buys in the Senate race, the Bevin buys were a glaring exception that appears to prove the value of pulling contracts and entering data. By our calculation, Bevin’s campaign committee spent just shy of $650,000 on ads, nearly twice the Kantar/CMAG figure for the entire state. Sarah Durand, the campaign’s spokeswoman, told Sunlight in an e-mail that this figure is closer to their actual spending.

This figure dwarfs McConnell’s $105,000 and Lundergan Grimes’ just under $82,000 spent — as these campaigns appear to be relying more on outside groups in the Louisville market. As Wesleyan Media points out, outside spending has dominated Senate races and Kentucky is no different, with outside groups collectively spending about $1.2 million buying airtime on local broadcast networks.

The proliferation of 501(c)4 dark money groups like Patriot Majority USA and Kentucky Opportunity Coalition means that the spending figures disclosed to the Federal Election Commission don’t always reflect the full scope of political activity in a given race.

Kentucky Opportunity Coalition, for instance, designed its ads to avoid any requirement for declaring them to the Federal Elections Commission. While the ads were clearly positive depictions of McConnell, they did not explicitly urge voters to vote for him. Ads that mention or depict a candidate for office but don’t explicitly advocate for that candidate’s election or ouster don’t have to be declared to the Federal Election Commission unless they run 30 days before a primary or 60 days before a general election.

Kentucky Opportunity Coalition made its last buy on April 19, one day before the FEC window opened for declaring the more general “electioneering communications” in Kentucky.

We know the size and scope of Kentucky Opportunity Coalition’s buys only because of Political Ad Sleuth: Publicly available contracts for TV air time are one of the few places where dark money sees the light of day. (Though, as Sunlight Reporting has discovered, even this bit of disclosure is sometimes shaky.)

Sunlight created Political Ad Sleuth to capture publicly available ad contracts and orders from TV stations online political files. The FCC mandates that all top four stations — ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC — in the nation’s largest 50 media markets must put these files online for public inspection. The sums from our Ad Sleuth analysis of the Louisville market reflect money spent on air time only and do not reflect expenditures on production, media consultants or other similar overhead. Real-Time FEC shows the race has attracted nearly $21 million in disclosed spending already.


Methodology: Ad contract data is collected by Political Ad Sleuth and summarized manually. In cases where there were duplicate contracts or order forms, the data from the newest form was used. Only contracts that indicated they pertained to national issue ads or the Senate race were included. Advertiser names were cleaned and clustered. Due to the lack of standardization at TV stations and the large amount of manual entry, some errors are possible. You can see the underlying data for this analysis — including hyperlinks to original contracts — here.