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Missouri's U.S. Senate race has already seen $10 million in TV ad spending

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt launched a new ad in GOP primary’s final weeks featuring him using a blowtorch.
Missouri Independent
Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt launched a new ad in GOP primary’s final weeks featuring him using a blowtorch.

Months of ads from candidates and PACs have produced little change in poll results for the Republican primary. Meanwhile, Trudy Busch Valentine is the only candidate in the 11-person Democratic field with ads on the air.

In late March, a poll from Trafalgar Group showed the Republican Senate primary in a dead heat.

U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler, with 24.9%, held a slight edge over former Gov. Eric Greitens, with Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt just behind but all within the 3% margin of error.

Three months later, after nearly $10 million of television ad spending along with radio and social media buys, little has changed. In the polling firm’s latest survey, completed June 30, Hartzler had 24%, slightly ahead of Greitens, with Schmitt within the 2.9% margin of error.

“The needle hasn’t moved much,” said Terry Smith, a political science professor at Columbia College.

And with almost one-quarter of Republican voters consistently telling pollsters they will vote for the candidate that wins an endorsement from former President Donald Trump, Smith said nothing is likely to change unless he acts.

“If nothing happens between now and election day in August, other than just normal campaigning, you probably would see the actual vote look kind of like what the polls look like,” Smith said.

The Independent reviewed Federal Communications Commission filings by 34 full-power television stations serving the state and found that of the eight major party candidates in the U.S. Senate primary running full-fledged campaigns, only four are buying time directly. Five political action committees are also airing ads to influence the race.

All but $227,000 of the $9.6 million spent on television ads since Jan. 1 has been for spots running after the March poll by Trafalgar Group.

Trudy Busch Valentine is the only candidate in the 11-person Democratic field with ads on the air. Valentine, the Anheuser-Busch beer heiress who entered the Democratic primary race in late March, has spent $822,135 for the spots in St. Louis and Kansas City. She has not reported fundraising totals but she has personal wealth of $67.5 million to $214.7 million.

Lucas Kunce, a Democrat who had raised $3.3 million by March 31, will begin his ad buys this week, said Connor Lounsbury, spokesman for Kunce’s campaign.

Otherwise, all the spending so far has been to influence Republican voters.

That includes almost $850,000 spent by Missouri Stands United, a PAC formed by former Sen. Jack Danforth, asking voters to turn away from the Republican field and support an independent candidate.

The biggest spender is Save Missouri Values, the PAC backing Schmitt. The PAC, which has raised $4.5 million, has spent just under $2 million on TV ads running in every market in the state. Schmitt’s campaign committee, which has raised $2.9 million, has spent $539,000 on television ads, all in the St. Louis television market where Schmitt is best known.

The other campaign and PAC spending totals are:

  • Team PAC, which backs former Gov. Eric Greitens, has spent $1.7 million. The PAC received one $2.5 million donation in 2021 from Richard Uihlein, who Politico identified as a billionaire shipping and industrial supply company executive. Greitens, who has raised $1.8 million for his campaign committee, had $345,000 on hand on March 31 and has not purchased any television time.
  • Show Me Values PAC, which opposes Greitens, has spent $1.5 million. The PAC, formed in early June, has not reported fundraising totals.
  • Hartzler has spent $1.3 million from her campaign committee, which has raised $2.9 million since the start of 2021 and had $1.5 million on hand as of March 31. There is no super PAC supporting Hartzler.
  • Missouri Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz has spent $642,560 from his campaign committee, which reported in April that it had raised $2.2 million including a $2 million loan from the candidate. There is no super PAC supporting Schatz.
  • WinMo PAC, supporting U.S. Rep. Billy Long, spent $156,775 of the $227,000 it has raised since the start of 2021. Long,  who has raised $1.5 million and had $500,000 on hand March 31, has not purchased time with his campaign fund. 

Based on recent purchases, Hartzler is on the air in the St. Louis, Kansas City, Columbia and Springfield markets. After making early purchases in the smaller markets like Cape Girardeau and Joplin, Hartzler is concentrating on the heavily populated areas.

Schatz, who started his ad buys in late May, has not made any purchases in the Kansas City market.

“In a multicandidate race, where your goal is to get 30% to 33% of the vote, to prevail in the primary you have to find media markets where you either connect with voters or the issues you talk about really resonate,” said Republican consultant James Harris, who is not associated with any campaign. “And you have to ignore some areas.”

A Republican candidate ignores the Springfield market at their peril, Harris said.

“Everyone will target southwest Missouri because it is really a honeypot for votes,” Harris said.

Most of the campaigns buy time during news shows, anticipating that news viewers are the most engaged voters.

But sometimes the program purchased can itself be part of the message.

During the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics from Beijing, Team PAC spent $20,000 to air a single spot on every NBC affiliate in the state attacking Schmitt’s record on China.

And the Missouri Stands United ad, where Danforth takes on the Republican Party he helped make the dominant force statewide, is airing during Family Feud on KDNL in St. Louis, which has no local news broadcast.

Republican consultant John Hancock, who has worked for Hartzler’s campaign, said managing media buys is a constant challenge.

“Every campaign and every PAC that is buying media has a media buyer working on their behalf,” he said. “Among their other duties, they are constantly surveying what competitive ads are running in the state and the district and communicating that back to the campaign.”

Campaigns and PACs are not allowed to coordinate their purchases. But by watching the public moves, such as ad purchases filings at the FCC, they can make tactical decisions about where to air ads, Hancock said.

For example, Save Missouri Values has spent only $213,000 of its $1.9 million in the St. Louis media market, the largest in the state. But that is also where Schmitt is spending his entire TV budget so far.

Candidate committees have a big advantage over PACs when it comes to obtaining air time and the price paid for spots. Stations must sell ads to campaigns, bumping regular advertisers if needed to air them at the time requested. PACs have no similar right to the airwaves.

And, Hancock noted, campaigns get the cheapest published rate for the program purchased. The cost of airing an ad is based on the number of viewers likely to see it.

For example, a 30-second ad on the 10 p.m. news on KSHB in Kansas City costs campaigns $400. For the PACs, the price is $880.

A PAC “is always going to be less efficient,” Hancock said. “Sometimes it is much less efficient.”

This story was originally published on theMissouri Independent.

Rudi Keller covers the state budget, energy and the legislature for the Missouri Independent.
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