Pa. Senate race could set record for ad spend
PITTSBURGH — Insiders expect the U.S. Senate race between Mehmet Oz and John Fetterman to be one of the most expensive of all time in Pennsylvania — perhaps even surpassing the spending in 2016 when Republican Pat Toomey defended his seat — and the main battleground may be the airwaves.
A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette survey of various political advertisers found that Democratic and Republican powerhouses have already booked at least $67 million in advertising spots for the November election, with most of the reservations starting in the fall. Oz and Fetterman seek the Senate seat from which Toomey is retiring.
Some of the spots are starting to trickle onto the battleground state’s commercial breaks as both parties see Pennsylvania as one of the central arenas for control of the Senate at a time when abortion rights are under attack, the economy continues its free fall and President Joe Biden suffers historically low approval ratings.
An all-out blitz: Those who’ve seen the advertisements already have gotten a glimpse of what political experts say will kick up in early August: an all-out blitz that may not have a historical precedent.
Fetterman, the Democratic nominee and Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor, has been up on the airwaves with ads calling his candidacy a backlash against politics as usual in Washington. Oz’s Republican allies have gone to bat in recent weeks, calling his opponent an extremist beholden to Biden’s worst impulses.
Terry Madonna, senior fellow in residence for political affairs at Millersville University and a leading political analyst in Pennsylvania, said advertising in the Oz-Fetterman race could fuel an outpouring of spending that rivals the Toomey-Katie McGinty contest in 2016, which hit $164 million.
“It’s hard to say whether it ultimately reaches $165 million, but I don’t think you can rule that out at this point,” Madonna said. “It could be the most expensive election in our state’s history.”
Already out: On the airwaves now are a few spots, including ads that may be central to Fetterman’s campaign. His team has been running a spot on Fox News in the Pittsburgh, Johnstown and Scranton media markets that describes him as a political trailblazer who will use his lived experiences — as former mayor of Braddock, for one — to fight for higher wages and good jobs for the state’s forgotten towns.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee is pushing a pair of ads that tie Fetterman to Biden and say that left-wing radicals are siding with his candidacy. One cites Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., calling Fetterman an “outstanding progressive.”
“You’re out of gas. Biden’s out of time. Fetterman’s out of the question,” one of the spots insists.
An NRSC aide said the group, which thus far has reserved $8 million in ad spots through November, will invest heavily in Pennsylvania to convince voters that Fetterman would rubber stamp the Democratic agenda in Washington and tie it to inflation and record gas prices. That spending will increase over the next few months, the aide said.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, meanwhile, is reserving ad time as part of a coordinated campaign to win both the Senate race and the race for Pennsylvania governor between Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the Democrat, and Republican state Sen. Doug Mastriano. An aide said the ad reservation so far is for about $3 million, starting in September.
What to expect: Madonna said he expects Democratic groups to lean into Fetterman’s unique personality and authenticity. In another ad Fetterman is running right now in Pittsburgh and Scranton, the 52-year-old remarks that he doesn’t look like a typical politician, recounts his upbringing and says he helped to rebuild Braddock and reform the lieutenant governor’s office.
Fetterman, according to Madonna, also may try to take a page out of former hedge fund CEO David McCormick’s playbook in the GOP primary, when the Republican labeled Oz as a flip-flopper and a carpetbagger because he has a residence in New Jersey.
If the GOP primary serves as any lesson to what the general election may hold, voters should strap in for months of attack ads, swamping almost every commercial break.
According to an analysis by the ad tracker AdImpact, Republican advertisers spent
$64.12 million on advertising in for the primary election. The highest spender was a pro-McCormick issue group, Honor Pennsylvania, which spent $19.12 million.
A pro-Oz group, American Leadership Action, spent $3.64 million on ads, and Oz’s campaign itself dropped $15.03 million, according to AdImpact — which noted that between both parties, spending in the primary was nearly six times the total of the 2018 Senate primary and general elections combined. In that election, Sen. Bob Casey, a Democrat, successfully defended his seat against Republican Lou Barletta.
Now, the big guns are primed to get more involved.
Broader interest: As part of a flurry of initial spending in five states, the Senate Majority PAC, supporting Democratic candidates, reserved $26 million in fall advertising spots in Pennsylvania, with most ads starting in August, according to an aide. And the group recently announced another $5.9 million of spending on ads here as part of a summer ad blitz across battleground states.
JB Poersch, president of Senate Majority PAC, told the Post-Gazette in a written statement that Oz is “deeply out of touch with the people of Pennsylvania” and that the PAC intends to remind voters of it.
“We fully intend to remind voters of the truth: Oz is a self-serving millionaire and Hollywood phony who doesn’t trust women to make their own health care decisions and has repeatedly sold out working people to benefit himself,” Poersch said.
The Mitch McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund has reserved $24.6 million in ads in Pennsylvania, beginning Sept. 13 and running through Election Day, Nov. 8, group officials said. It’s part of a $141 million advertising push nationwide to try to take back the Senate majority for Republicans.
In an interview with Politico, Steven Law, president of the Senate Leadership Fund, said he expects many GOP candidates to be outspent this fall — which will require intervention from his PAC to “try to level that playing field.”
Online: So far, the playing field is almost entirely digital, with ads popping up on Facebook, YouTube and Instagram, among other platforms. These ads are much less expensive than putting spots in the Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton media markets.
On Facebook, it appears that Fetterman is consuming most of the space. Andrew Arenge, director of operations for the University of Pennsylvania’s Program on Opinion Research and Election Studies, tweeted this past week that Fetterman is spending money daily on Facebook ads, while Oz’s camp hasn’t done so since before the primary election.
“Our campaign is going to continue to compete aggressively on all platforms, both digital and TV, to meet voters where they are across the entire commonwealth,” Fetterman spokesman Joe Calvello said.
Fetterman started running more than a half-dozen ads on Facebook on Friday, including fundraising pitches, a personal story about the tattoos on his arms, and a pitch that labels Oz as someone who “has invested millions of his Hollywood money into his campaign to keep this Senate seat red.”
The Oz campaign is going to argue that the choice couldn’t be clearer between the candidates, and that the celebrity doctor and TV personality will fight for safer streets, lower taxes and against radical policies.
Madonna said he expects Oz to focus his messaging on how the economy under Biden and the Democrats is failing the average person, and go after Fetterman for “what he’ll call ‘radical left wing positions.’”