Hey big spender 

Where are Montana's campaign millions headed?

Montana's hotly contested U.S. Senate race promises to bring millions in political spending to Montana. There's simply too much at stake to believe otherwise—control of the Senate, a second term for incumbent Jon Tester, a major victory for Republican challenger Rep. Denny Rehberg. Candidates, political parties and third-party organizations are going to throw cash around, and if history is any indicator, most of it will stick in one place: broadcast advertising.

"We absolutely budgeted for it," says Shawna Batt, general manager for Townsquare Media, which includes Missoula radio stations 107.5 Zoo FM and 96.3 The Blaze. "And we are legally bound to accept any political advertising that comes our way."

The ads have already started on television, primarily third-party attacks aimed at Tester. And the incumbent has the resources to respond. He's raised more than $6.2 million to date, far more than Rehberg's $2.6 million. Informed observers put the amount of money already spent on campaign advertising in the race at around $1 million. A windfall hasn't hit yet, but big bucks are in the offing.

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  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Broadcast outlets such as Missoula’s KECI stand to gain from millions in campaign spending.

"A good rule of thumb is you want to see a campaign spend about 70 percent of their budget on broadcast advertising," says David Parker, a political science professor at Montana State University and author of The Power of Money in Congressional Campaigns, 1880-2006. "The name of the game is to educate voters about your positions, to get them excited and motivated and get them out to the polls. I'd expect to see the same thing in Montana."

Parker predicts that "when you take into account what the candidates are going spend, what the parties are going to spend and what the outside organizations are going to spend," Montana's Senate race alone could pump as much as $30 million into the state's broadcast industry.

Greg MacDonald, president of the Montana Broadcaster's Association, isn't quite as enthusiastic. He shies away from words like "windfall" and says broadcasters won't know the true financial benefits until well after the polls close. "I'm not hearing a lot of people jumping up and down and saying, 'We're getting rich,'" MacDonald says.

Batt—the only broadcast representative to respond for comment—agrees up to a point, saying, "We haven't had a whole lot of activity yet. We're still waiting for it."

However, even a trickle of campaign money in television and radio markets would be more than welcome. The industry's revenues have declined significantly in the past decade, MacDonald says, largely due to the blow the recession dealt to major national advertisers such as Ford and General Motors. One thing is for sure, he says: This will be "an expensive election."

"If this were a safe seat or if either one of these candidates had what would be considered an insurmountable lead, these people would be putting their money somewhere else," MacDonald continues. "But it's not."

If that's welcome news to broadcasters, it certainly isn't for other political hopefuls. Between President Barack Obama's reelection campaign and the Tester-Rehberg face-off, federal races will likely suck significant money and airtime away from state and local candidates. Federal law gives federal candidates more guarantees in broadcast advertising than other candidates. Politicians running for state or local offices may have to look for alternatives like radio that otherwise don't see as much campaign activity, MacDonald says. And with third parties jockeying for prime broadcast real estate, the cost and available time for advertising will be at an election cycle premium. For everyone.

"The people who stand most to lose in this are local advertisers, who, particularly in that lead-up right before the elections, may find there is no time to advertise their grocery store or drug store or lawn-mowing business or anything else," MacDonald says.

Tester and Rehberg have so far been largely silent on the airwaves. The campaign started early; by MacDonald's recollection, the first TV ad he saw came in the weeks after the November 2010 elections. But it's so far been waged by third parties. Crossroads GPS, a conservative group backed by Karl Rove, launched a series of negative ads targeting Tester last year. Cablevision's Optimum cable service pulled one of those ads in mid-November after Democrats pointed out that the EPA regulation the ad accused Tester of voting for didn't exist.

The increase in such ads in part prompted Tester to send a proposal to Rehberg this month discouraging outside money from entering the race. Tester called for a penalty, equal to the cost of the ad buy, for any attack ad benefiting a candidate. Rehberg parried with his own proposal: return all donations from lobbyists. Tester declined.

To Parker, these third parties have altered the conventional wisdom surrounding federal races. Tester and Rehberg wouldn't normally release their own campaign ads until well after the primary, he says. Now, with the attack ads escalating, the incumbent will likely be forced to fight back with his own ads far earlier. Parker expects to see the first candidate-sponsored campaign ads as early as this spring. The advanced timeline—alongside the millions associated with this and other races—reassures him that 2012 will be a big year for broadcasters. It may even eclipse Tester's 2006 bid against former Sen. Conrad Burns, he says. According to the Campaign Media Analysis Group, a record-breaking $1.8 billion was spent in 2006 on televised political ads nationwide.

"Television and radio stations are going to be sitting pretty," Parker says. "On top of that, you have an open governor's race and an open House seat. Yeah, they're going to have a windfall...These organizations have been waiting for this, they've budgeted for this and they're excited."

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