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Striking TV ads have shaped Senate race
Daniel Malloy | Posted May 18, 2014
Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorial cartoon
ATLANTA — From heroic image-building to vicious attacks, more than $9 million worth of television advertising has been designed to sway the Republican U.S. Senate primary in Georgia, shaping the playing field ahead of Tuesday's vote.
Even in an age of digital innovation, television ads make up the biggest chunk of many campaigns' budgets and are the medium of choice for free-spending super PACs.
As of the end of April, U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston and businessman David Perdue had each spent more than $2 million on TV ads. U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey has put up more than $1.3 million, according to an analysis by a media buying firm. Two super PACs -- political committees that can raise and spend unlimited amounts without coordinating with campaigns -- have spent more than $1.5 million apiece, while the U.S. Chamber of Commerce chipped in nearly $1 million.
"Television is the one medium above all others that you use to get to their hearts and their minds," Republican political consultant Chip Lake said. "It's still the mother's milk of politics. It just makes it really hard if you're not playing in that space at all."
For Perdue, in particular, TV appears to have paid off. He went from the bottom to the top of Republican primary polls as he spent more than $2 million on ads featuring his opponents as crying infants.
The ads were the work of Fred Davis, a California-based consultant best known in Georgia for depicting Gov. Roy Barnes as a giant rat in the 2002 race won by Perdue's cousin, Sonny Perdue. Davis also produced the 2008 "Celebrity" ad that compared Barack Obama to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears.
During a brainstorming meeting at his company, Strategic Perception, Davis said he described how the other top contenders had all been in politics for some time and they would likely complain about what is wrong in Washington. Someone -- Davis does not remember who -- piped up: "sounds like a bunch of whining babies."
"You've got to give David Perdue credit," Davis said. "He immediately went for it and approved it."
As he kicked off a statewide RV tour in Perry this month, Perdue mused about his surge: "It may be the babies."
They have proved so memorable that Perdue's opponents have tried to twist the image back on him. Gingrey turns off a TV playing the "babies" ad in a spot of his own, declaring Perdue's tactic "clever. But you deserve better than politics as usual."
Kingston depicts the GOP front-runner as baby "Davey Perdue," eating too much cake as an announcer intones attacks against the candidate.
Kingston has put more money into ads than Perdue through the end of April, spending $2.46 million on airtime -- and the media firm analysis indicates he has brought his total closer to $3 million in May.
Polls have Kingston contending for a spot in the Republican runoff. Kingston's approach has been to emphasize his folksy side and his thriftiness, including the fact that he drives an old Buick Roadmaster station wagon and uses old Cool Whip containers as Tupperware.
Lake, who left the Gingrey campaign last year and is unaligned in the Republican race, said the strategy was meant to inoculate Kingston from attacks about congressional spending -- including past earmarks he supported. Indeed, a $1.5 million television ad campaign from a pro-Perdue super PAC has focused in part on that spending.
Kingston has not moved up in the polls the way Perdue has, which many Republicans in Georgia attribute to a less effective ad campaign.
"While that was all cute and creative, I don't think it had the intended consequences that they wanted," Lake said. "Anybody that knows Jack Kingston knows he is a very serious individual who's very friendly and folksy and is a smart man. But if you've never met Jack Kingston before, do you really want voters to go into the polls and say: 'That's the guy that drives a cheap station wagon?'"
Kingston also has an on-air boost from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is spending $920,000 to display Kingston as a "consistent conservative." A new ad, which Lake said was more "senatorial," has Kingston speaking directly to the camera about protecting Georgia's military bases and fighting proposed Pentagon cuts.
Gingrey was late to the airwaves -- and beaten to the punch by the Ending Spending Super PAC bashing him for voting for earmarks and increases in the nation's borrowing limit.
Gingrey's ads have focused on his pledge to repeal the law known as Obamacare or else not seek re-election and on his advocacy for a constituent whose son died in the Iraq war. He also released the most provocative attack ad so far, hitting the three candidates ahead of him in the polls as "the moderates."
U.S. Rep. Paul Broun and former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel have had considerably less money than the other top-tier candidates and have spent comparatively small sums on television. Broun has put his energy into web ads, including a couple in which he gives a one-word response on whether he backs certain bills: "No!"
But Broun has struggled in public polling lately, while Handel has been able to remain in contention. Handel attributed this to her 2010 gubernatorial campaign, when she narrowly lost a GOP runoff to Nathan Deal.
"In the governor's race 232,000 people voted for me, so our strategy all along was to make sure we really, really did everything we could to reach out to those folks," she said. "TV isn't really the medium to do that. You have to be far more targeted about it, which is what we've done."
Jacob Hawkins, an unaffiliated Republican digital media consultant, said Handel has done it in part through robust spending online.
"I don't think it's a complete win for TV, because I think Handel has been able to, for the most part, get her message out because of digital, and she might end up finishing second because of it," Hawkins said. "But TV played a huge role in this race."
Daniel Malloy writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.