The big-spending conservative group American Crossroads and its nonprofit arm launched a new offensive Tuesday in the 2014 campaign for control of the U.S. Senate with an ad targeting North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan and her support of the Affordable Care Act.
The ad is the first in a $10-million campaign by the nonprofit Crossroads GPS and its sister "super PAC" American Crossroads that will target vulnerable Democrats this summer in four key states: Arkansas, Alaska, North Carolina and Colorado. The spot features Hagan echoing President Obama's promise that if Americans liked their healthcare plans, they could keep them, and highlights the fact that thousands of North Carolina health insurance plans were canceled because they did not meet the requirements of the new law.
"Typical Washington. Deceiving us. Pushing their agenda," the narrator in the new Crossroads GPS ad says, "Tell Senator Hagan: Keep your word on our health care."
The ad is just the latest salvo in what campaign advertising analyst Elizabeth Wilner calls "a four-year avalanche" of ads maligning the Affordable Care Act even though polls show that public opinion has essentially hardened on the law.
From its passage in March 2010 through this April, opponents of the Affordable Care Act spent $418 million on negative ads about the law, while proponents spent just $27 million to tout their support, according to an analysis by Kantar Media's Campaign Media Analysis Group, which Wilner oversees. That means the law's opponents have spent $15 for every $1 spent by supporters of Obamacare.
That trend shows no signs of changing with the $10-million Crossroads campaign and a new round of ads this month in Colorado and New Hampshire from the conservative Americans for Prosperity. AFP, which is largely funded by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, has far outpaced any other group this cycle with more than $35 million in anti-Obamacare ad spending.
"Republicans remain convinced this is the way that they are going to win back the Senate, and Democrats are still trying to figure out how to use the issue," Wilner said. "For Republicans it's a bumper sticker: repeal and replace Obamacare. It's just not that simple for Democrats."
Around the time last month that President Obama called on Democrats to "forcefully defend and be proud" of the Affordable Care Act, there were ads that seemed to suggest Democrats and their allies could be moving toward a more public embrace of the law.
Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Allyson Schwartz aired a spot touting her work with Obama on the law as she appealed to Democrats before Tuesday's primary in Pennsylvania. (Polls show Schwartz in a distant second place). A super PAC tried to help Alaska Sen. Mark Begich with an ad featuring a cancer survivor who was able to get health insurance under the law despite her preexisting condition. But Democratic operatives quietly say those kinds of ads are likely to be the exception this fall -- in no small part because so much has been spent to shape negative perceptions of the law.
"This miasma has built up of negative sentiment against the healthcare law that almost no amount of advertising within a couple months' time is going to make go away," Wilner said. "It's like lead paint … you have to get rid of it, and there are layers, and layers and layers of it."
The more effective messaging strategy for Democrats has been a focus on fixing the law, and the fact that were they to repeal it Republicans would strip away some of the most popular protections, such as ensuring coverage for those with preexisting conditions.
A strategist for Crossroads GPS declined to preview the message in the ads to come later this summer. The group plans to spend $3.55 million on ads in North Carolina that will run over four weeks between now and the end of July. It plans to spend $900,000 in Alaska, $875,000 in Arkansas and $2.28 million in Colorado, where the
ads will run intermittently through August.
The allied American Crossroads super PAC will spend an additional $881,000 in Arkansas and $900,000 in Alaska during June, according to a strategist who was not authorized to publicly disclose the plans.
Hagan's campaign said that with the new Crossroads GPS campaign, outside spending against the North Carolina senator is approaching $16 million. Kantar Media's analysis showed that as of late April, 100% of the Republican general election spots on broadcast TV in North Carolina included an anti-healthcare law message.
Despite the outside spending, Hagan and her opponent, speaker of the state House Thom Tillis, have been essentially tied in the polls since January. Hagan's spokeswoman, Sadie Weiner, said the North Carolina senator "is focused on common sense fixes to make this law work better, including pushing a bill to let people stay on their plans permanently."
"Thom Tillis has the wrong priorities for North Carolina families and is trying to hide the fact that his only plan would take us back to a time when people could be denied care for a preexisting condition, women were charged more than men and seniors paid more for prescription drugs," Weiner said.
Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Justin Barasky mocked the election-year record of American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, the groups co-founded by Republican political strategist Karl Rove.
The two entities spent more than $176 million in the 2012 federal election cycle, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics. But they have not been major players in the 2014 cycle until now. (American Crossroads spent close to $2 million in April on ads in North Carolina and Alaska; Crossroads GPS aired an ad in March targeting Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and the healthcare law).