Senate ads hope to find their audience as spending increases

Outside advertisers continue to pour money into the race between Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan and Republican challenger Thom Tillis. Ad experts say that money isn't just hoping to persuade undecided voters. It also helps keep partisans motivated.

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Mark Binker
RALEIGH, N.C. — Even if you've decided who you are going to vote for in the U.S. Senate race this November, the campaign commercials slathered over the airwaves this summer are still aimed at you. 
"They're not trying to persuade 100 percent of the voters," said Ken Eudy, chief executive of Raleigh-based communications firm Capstrat, told WRAL News anchor David Crabtree during this week's episode of On the Record. "In study after study, 90 percent of the Republicans are going to vote for the Republican candidate and about 85 percent of Democrats for the Democratic candidate." 

While roughly one in four North Carolina voters are unaffiliated, many have partisan leanings. So, the universe of persuadable voters is relatively small versus how many people will see those commercials. But the ads aren't just there to persuade.

"The Democrats across the country, not just in this state, are concerned about turnout, because Democratic turnout in off-year elections diminishes significantly," Eudy said.

So, many of the ads on the television this summer are aimed at turning out the vote for Democratic incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan in her race against Republican Thom Tillis, the speaker of the North Carolina House.

That worry about Democratic turnout is reflected in data provided by Kantar Media, which shows candidates, 501(c)(4) organizations and other outside spending groups have plowed $11.6 million into the Senate race. That doesn't count several million dollars spent by Americans for Prosperity, a conservative leaning organization, in 2013 before the race got underway in earnest.

A surge of advertising this summer by Senate Majority PAC has put the Democratic-leaning group in the front of North Carolina's campaign spending pack since Jan. 1. 

Senate Majority PAC isn't alone. Conservative groups such as Women Speak Out, which has been critical of Hagan's stance on abortion, and American Crossroads, which backed Tillis in his primary, have also been on the air. 

"Television is still, by far, the easiest way to broadcast a message to a large group of people," said Walt Barron, senior vice president with McKinney, a Durham-based ad firm. 

With recent federal court decisions, more types of non-candidate spenders can take advantage of television to get their ads out. Only a few years ago, it would have been somewhat unusual to see political ads at the height of beach season, but late June and July have marked a resurgence of ad spending that dropped somewhat after the primary – and viewers aren't necessarily 

"People are becoming more savvy to these outside groups," Barron said. "We start to understand, 'OK, this is not Kay Hagan or Thom Tillis,' but I don't know that they think there's a disconnect. I think that people might believe there is some sort of association there."



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