Ad Buys Show Mainly Republicans, Not Democrats, are Running on Reform

BY Lea Winerman  October 27, 2010 at 5:14 PM EDT


With less than a week left to go before Election Day, a new round of ads is hitting TV screens targeting health care reform and the politicians who voted for it.

The ads are the latest salvo in an election season in which health reform has become a drag rather than a boon for many Democratic candidates. Spending on anti-health reform advertising has dwarfed spending on pro-reform ads, and most Democrats — contrary to what the party had hoped would happen last spring — have shied away from running on, or even mentioning, their votes in favor of the bill.

This election season, spending on anti-health reform ads has outpaced spending on pro-reform ads more than five to one. On the federal campaign level, candidates and outside groups have spent nearly $92 million on ads attacking reform, while voices in favor of reform have spent just over $19 million, according to Evan Tracey of the Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks political ad spending.

On the state level — governor, attorney general and other races — more than $21 million worth of anti-reform ads have run, compared to less than $300,000 worth of pro-reform ads, according to Tracey.

Although the economy has dominated the election, Tracey says, health reform has made up “a fairly significant part” of the larger advertising:

“Clearly this is a defining issue in a lot of control-of-Congress type races. This is part of the macro frame of the Republicans — that [health reform] is an assault on freedom, an expansion of government, and adds to debt.”

The new ad, which hits all those themes, is from the 60 Plus Association, a group that bills itself as the conservative alternative to the AARP. The association made a $600,000 cable ad buy to run this spot, in which a World War II veteran calls to repeal the health reform law and says that reform threatens American freedom.

The latest Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll found the electorate split on health reform, with 42 percent in favor of the law and 44 percent opposed — numbers that have not changed much over the course of the summer and fall.

In that climate, not many Democratic candidates in competitive races have chosen to advertise their votes for reform — although a few have begun to do so in the past month.

In September, Politico reported that Democratic candidates had spent three times as much money advertising against the law as for it — in other words, the main Democrats campaigning on health reform were those few who had broken with the party to vote against the bill, such as Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, D-S.D., or Rep. Glenn Nye, D-Va., (see their ads here and here), who were using the ads to communicate to their constituents that they don’t toe the Democratic party line.

In the month since then, a few Democrats in competitive races have begun to defend or even trumpet their votes in favor of reform — mainly by framing the bill as a fight against insurance company abuses. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., in a close fight against Republican challenger Ron Johnson, has run a spot touting his work on reform.

“Sen. Feingold has always been on our side fighting the insurance companies. But Ron Johnson won’t even get in the ring for us,” narrators say. “Russ fought to stop insurance companies from denying Wisconsin children health care due to preexisting conditions. Mr. Johnson would put insurance companies back in control.”

And North Dakota Democrat Rep. Earl Pomeroy has run an ad extolling what the bill will do for his constituents: “North Dakota doctors, nurses, and hospitals all praise Earl Pomeroy because he listened and then made sure the health-care bill protected North Dakota, improved Medicare, and kept our rural hospitals open, saving lives and putting North Dakota first.”

A few Democrats in safe districts are also running ads cheering reform, including Rep. Steve Israel in New York and Sen. Barbara Mikulski in Maryland, whose ad calls the law a victory for women’s health.

But these Democrats are the exception rather than the rule, as Republican candidates and outside groups have pumped money into ads opposing the bill and most Democrats have remained on the defensive.

“Democrats won a legislative victory, but they lost a political issue,” when they passed the health reform law, says Tracey. “Most Americans don’t want to be let inside the sausage factory [of how legislation is made], and that’s what happened [...] This became a Washington-is-broken bill, rather than something to pat our lawmakers on the back for.”