It's All Politics
3:34 am
Tue January 14, 2014

Political Groups Aim Early Attacks At New Hampshire Senator

Originally published on Tue January 14, 2014 7:32 am

Even with 10 months to go before the midterm congressional elections, some political and ideological groups are already on the air, attacking incumbents they hope to take down in November.

One race that's attracting early advertisers is in New Hampshire, where Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen is seeking a second term, and two tax-exempt social welfare organizations are buying ads against her.

The ads echo the Republican National Committee's strategy of tying Democrats to the Affordable Care Act. RNC chairman Reince Priebus told reporters last week that Obamacare "is going to be the number one issue in 2014."

The RNC has made only small radio buys so far in New Hampshire. But viewers there have been seeing TV ads with messages like this one: "Tell Senator Shaheen, it's time to be honest. Obamacare doesn't work. New Hampshire families deserve better."

It's from Americans For Prosperity. The group's president, Tim Phillips, says the ads aren't election ads, "they're issue ads, designed to work toward the eventual repeal of Obamacare."

That's because Americans For Prosperity, as a social welfare organization, isn't supposed to focus on partisan politics. "We don't have any view at all on the potential candidates who may get into different races," Phillips says.

Knowing The Election Date

So why not advertise in, say, Vermont and Maine?

"We have found that senators and House members who have to face the voters in the near future are more responsive on issues," Phillips says.

He says that with its ads, printed materials and voter contact, Americans For Prosperity is spending several hundred thousand dollars in New Hampshire, a minuscule sum compared to the tens of millions of dollars it spent as a top TV advertiser in the 2012 election cycle.

Social welfare groups, unlike political committees, don't have to release lists of their donors.

It isn't the only social welfare group on the air in New Hampshire. The other one is called Ending Spending. Like AFP, it's based in Northern Virginia.

The Ending Spending ad uses video of Shaheen vowing, "You can keep your insurance if you like it." The ad ends with a kicker: "So next November, if you like your senator, you can keep her. If you don't, you know what to do."

Brian Baker, president of Ending Spending, says the group regards this ad as explicitly political. But that's legally allowed as long as Ending Spending is primarily devoted to social welfare.

The organization's social welfare mission is working for a balanced budget and smaller federal debt, Baker says, "and we think the only way you're going to do that is to elect fiscally responsible leaders. So we know what the election date is and we kind of work back from that."

Many New Hampshire Republicans hope that Shaheen will be challenged by former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, who recently moved into the state. National and state Democratic committees have run a few ads sniping at his old Senate record.

Baker says Brown fits the Ending Spending idea of a fiscally responsible politician. "The TV ads against Senator Shaheen are definitely a part of the Draft Scott Brown effort," Baker says.

Benefits For Republicans

And while Ending Spending and Americans For Prosperity say their main missions are social welfare, the New Hampshire GOP is glad to see six-figure ad campaigns that link Shaheen to Obamacare.

"This is going to be a long-term issue that will continue to dog Shaheen until Election Day," says Ryan Williams, an adviser to the state party committee. "It makes sense to bring up this message now, to hammer it home, and to damage her numbers and to continue to make the case that she doesn't deserve to be re-elected in November."

But some outside analysts say ads this early in the season are essentially worthless.

"This happens over and over again. They're after the attention," says Stuart Rothenberg, a longtime analyst of political contests. He says early advertisers have self-serving agendas to "please contributors, appeal to future contributors and overall get a reputation that they're players in the political world."

Now, it's a world where outside groups and their hidden donors can't wait to weigh in on the next election.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It will be 10 more months before mid-term congressional elections. But clearly, it's never too early to start the attack ads. One race that's attracting early advertisers is in New Hampshire, where Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen is seeking a second term.

NPR's Peter Overby has more.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Republicans say their goal is to tie Shaheen and every other Democrat to the Affordable Care Act, which they hope will sink them.

REINCE PRIEBUS: It is going to be the number-one issue in 2014.

OVERBY: That was Republican National Chairman Reince Priebus last week in a conference call with reporters. But right now, that anti-Obamacare message is being delivered mainly by outside groups. Two tax-exempt social welfare organizations have been pounding Shaheen in New Hampshire. They're both based in northern Virginia.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Tell Senator Shaheen it's time to be honest. Obamacare doesn't work. New Hampshire families deserve better.

OVERBY: This is from Americans for Prosperity, where President Tim Phillips says the ad isn't about the Senate race.

TIM PHILLIPS: These are not electoral ads. They're issue ads, designed to work toward the eventual repeal of Obamacare.

OVERBY: That's because Americans for Prosperity, as a social welfare organization, isn't supposed to focus on partisan politics.

PHILLIPS: We don't have any view at all on the potential candidates who may get into different races.

OVERBY: So why not run the ads in, say, Vermont and Maine? Phillips says it makes sense to run issue ads where people are paying attention to politics.

PHILLIPS: We have found that senators and House members who have to face the voters in the near future are more responsive on issues.

OVERBY: He says that between the ads, printed materials and voter contact, AFP is spending several hundred thousand dollars in New Hampshire. The group was among the biggest TV advertisers in the 2012 election cycle. Social welfare groups, unlike political committees, don't have to release lists of their donors. AFP isn't the only social welfare group on the air in New Hampshire. The other one is called Ending Spending.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: On healthcare, Jeanne Shaheen didn't tell the truth.

SENATOR JEANNE SHAHEEN: You can keep your insurance if you like it.

OVERBY: And the kicker at the end...

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: So next November, if you like your senator, you can keep her. If you don't, you know what to do. Ending Spending, Inc. is responsible for the...

OVERBY: Brian Baker, president of Ending Spending, says they regard this ad as explicitly political. That's legally allowed if Ending Spending is primarily devoted to social welfare. Baker says the social welfare mission is working for a balanced budget and smaller federal debt.

BRIAN BAKER: And we think the only way you're going to do that is to elect fiscally responsible leaders. So, you know, we know what the election date is, and we kind of work back from that.

OVERBY: Many Republicans in New Hampshire hope that Shaheen will be challenged by former Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown, who recently moved into the state. National and state Democrats have run a few ads sniping at his old Senate record. Baker says Brown fits the Ending Spending idea of a fiscally responsible politician.

BAKER: The TV ads against Senator Shaheen are definitely a part of the Draft Scott Brown effort.

OVERBY: And while Ending Spending and Americans for Prosperity say their main missions are social welfare, New Hampshire Republicans are glad to see their six-figure ad campaigns linking Shaheen to Obamacare. Ryan Williams is an adviser to the New Hampshire GOP.

RYAN WILLIAMS: This is going to be a long-term issue that will continue to dog Shaheen into Election Day. It makes sense to bring up this message now, to hammer it home, and to damage her numbers and to continue to make the case that she doesn't deserve to be re-elected in November.

OVERBY: But some outside analysts say ads this early in the season are essentially worthless.

STUART ROTHENBERG: This happens over and over again. They're after the attention.

OVERBY: Stuart Rothenberg tracks political contests nationwide. He says early advertisers have self-serving agendas.

ROTHENBERG: Please contributors, appeal to future contributors, and overall, get a reputation that they're players in the political world.

OVERBY: Now it's a world where outside groups and their hidden donors can't wait to weigh in on the next election. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.