Spend­ing in 6th District race cre­at­ing news shows

Chattanooga Times Free Press - - REGION - BY GREG BLUESTEIN NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SER­VICE

AT­LANTA — There are so many ads in Ge­or­gia’s 6th Con­gres­sional District race they are cre­at­ing the news. Lit­er­ally.

The tidal wave of spend­ing led a lo­cal tele­vi­sion broad­caster, WXIA, to tem­po­rar­ily add a 7 p.m. news­cast on its sis­ter sta­tion. Fans of “The Andy Grif­fith Show” re­peats will have to look else­where for the next few weeks.

It’s only the lat­est way the bar­rage of out­side cash and na­tional at­ten­tion has trans­formed the race to rep­re­sent the sub­ur­ban At­lanta district. Once thought to be a sleepy spe­cial elec­tion, it is now poised to be the most ex­pen­sive U.S. House con­test in the na­tion’s his­tory.

An At­lanta Jour­nal-Con­sti­tu­tion anal­y­sis shows that about $15 mil­lion was spent by can­di­dates and out­side groups in the run-up to the April 18 vote, which win­nowed an 18-can­di­date field to a pair of fi­nal­ists: Demo­crat Jon Os­soff and Repub­li­can Karen Han­del.

Since then, the flood of money has only in­ten­si­fied. An ad­di­tional

$4 mil­lion has surged into the race in the past three weeks. And records show about $11 mil­lion in ad buys have al­ready been booked through the June 20 runoff. That’s not count­ing ex­pected big ex­pen­di­tures from Han­del’s cam­paign or other groups that could kick up their spend­ing.

The $30 mil­lion sum is an un­prece­dented ex­pen­di­ture. Ac­cord­ing to the Cen­ter for Re­spon­sive Pol­i­tics, a trans­parency ad­vo­cacy group, the most ex­pen­sive House race was a 2012 Florida con­test be­tween Repub­li­can U.S. Rep. Allen West and Demo­crat Pa­trick Mur­phy that cost nearly $29.6 mil­lion.

Why all the at­ten­tion? Repub­li­cans have held the district, which spans from east Cobb County to north DeKalb County, for decades, and Tom Price won a string of land­slide vic­to­ries there ev­ery two years to main­tain his grip on the seat. But when Don­ald Trump se­lected Price as his health sec­re­tary, the race to fill his con­gres­sional seat quickly turned into a na­tion­ally watched test of the pres­i­dent’s pop­u­lar­ity. A record-set­ting cam­paign It’s a huge — and un­ex­pected — boon for tele­vi­sion, ra­dio and ca­ble broad­cast­ers in metro At­lanta.

The pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns largely by­passed Ge­or­gia dur­ing the 2016 race, opt­ing for topsy-turvy bat­tle­ground states such as Florida, North Carolina and Ohio. And a weak Demo­cratic chal­lenge to Repub­li­can U.S. Sen. Johnny Isak­son meant less statewide ad spend­ing on his re-elec­tion cam­paign.

A surge in in­ter­est in Os­soff, a 30-year-old for­mer con­gres­sional aide, has up­ended this race. Os­soff raked in more than $8.3 mil­lion in the first three months of his cam­paign — a record-set­ting quar­terly haul for a House can­di­date — and he’s far sur­passed that fig­ure by now. Repub­li­can groups have scram­bled to counter him, pour­ing mil­lions into at­tack ads.

Elec­tions records ob­tained by the AJC show that Os­soff re­cently re­served more than $5.2 mil­lion in ad time for the rest of the cam­paign, and the Demo­cratic Con­gres­sional Cam­paign Com­mit­tee has chipped in an ad­di­tional $1 mil­lion. All told, Os­soff has spent or re­served more than $10.7 mil­lion for ads.

A trio of con­ser­va­tive groups — the U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce, the Na­tional Repub­li­can Con­gres­sional Com­mit­tee and the Con­gres­sional Lead­er­ship Fund — have com­bined to ac­count for more than $7.2 mil­lion in TV, ca­ble and ra­dio spend­ing since April 18. That doesn’t in­clude any spend­ing from Han­del’s cam­paign, which hasn’t aired a TV ad since her No. 2 fin­ish.

It helps ex­plain why re­porters at WXIA showed up at a meet­ing last week and were in­formed about a tem­po­rary 7 p.m. news­cast on its sis­ter sta­tion, WATL, that will end af­ter the June 20 runoff is over. They were told the cur­rent news­cast com­mer­cial in­ven­tory was too tight.

The man­ager of the NBC af­fil­i­ate didn’t re­spond to re­quests for com­ment.

Too many ads, too lit­tle time The sta­tions are grap­pling with an awk­ward prob­lem: too many po­lit­i­cal ads and too few slots for them on news pro­grams — the most-prized type of pro­gram­ming for po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns.

TV sta­tions across the na­tion have tem­po­rar­ily ex­tended news­casts or added pro­gram­ming the past few elec­tion cy­cles to take in more po­lit­i­cal ad­ver­tis­ing. The Wash­ing­ton Post re­ported that one sta­tion tem­po­rar­ily bumped daily re­runs of “The Simp­sons” for news, while an­other added two week­end news­casts dur­ing the cam­paign sea­son.

At­lanta net­works also have long tried to max­i­mize po­lit­i­cal ad rev­enue. WSB-TV, which is owned by the same par­ent com­pany that owns the AJC, oc­ca­sion­ally pro­grams news spe­cials in prime time to beef up its news of­fer­ings dur­ing po­lit­i­cal races. But an­a­lysts said WXIA is the first metro At­lanta sta­tion to of­fer a short­term news­cast timed for a spe­cial elec­tion.

“I have to give [WXIA] credit — they’re be­ing hon­est about it,” said Bobby Kahn, a for­mer Demo­cratic op­er­a­tive whose me­dia-buy­ing firm works with Os­soff’s cam­paign. “I’m never sur­prised at a tele­vi­sion sta­tion’s ef­forts to max­i­mize their po­lit­i­cal rev­enue.”

The tight tim­ing of a nightly news­cast also adds an­other wrin­kle. Michael Cas­tengera, a TV con­sul­tant who teaches at the Univer­sity of Ge­or­gia’s Grady Col­lege of Jour­nal­ism, said sta­tions try to space out ads to avoid air­ing them backto-back. That means a typ­i­cal 30-minute news­cast can fit 16 to 18 30-sec­ond ads, he said.

And they have to strike a bal­anc­ing act be­tween serv­ing long­time ad­ver­tis­ers who pro­vide a steady stream of rev­enue and the spike in po­lit­i­cal ads from cam­paigns who can gen­er­ally buy their air­time at cheaper rates.

Net­works and ca­ble TV sta­tions re­ject the po­lit­i­cal ads at their own risk. Trump’s cam­paign as­sailed CNN last week for re­ject­ing an ad that la­beled one of its an­chors “fake news.”

The glut of spend­ing has only in­creased since the U.S. Supreme Court’s land­mark Cit­i­zens United de­ci­sion in 2010. That rul­ing cre­ated a new class of su­per PACs by re­mov­ing lim­i­ta­tions on po­lit­i­cal con­tri­bu­tions by in­di­vid­u­als and cor­po­ra­tions, cre­at­ing an enor­mous new stream of rev­enue to back can­di­dates or spe­cial in­ter­ests in po­lit­i­cal races.

And that means more ads that will fol­low you wher­ever you go — on the nightly news, the car ra­dio, the desk­top com­puter and the mo­bile phone. And it could mean even more ex­per­i­men­ta­tion like the WXIA de­ci­sion to bump May­berry’s finest for a few weeks.

“There are go­ing to be a lot of Andy Grif­fith fans who are go­ing to be up­set,” Kahn quipped.

Well, they can still catch Andy, Barney and Opie at 7:30 p.m.

Greg Bluestein writes for The At­lanta Jour­nalCon­sti­tu­tion. Email him at gbluestein@ajc.com.

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