Early campaign ads: Sign of preparedness or weakness? Or both.
Democratic Reps. Tom Perriello (Va.) and Gabrielle Giffords (Ariz.)launched their first ads of the 2010 general election this week, joining a handful of Democratic incumbents who are on the air far earlier than in a normal campaign cycle in an attempt to blunt the anti-incumbent mood in the country.
In addition to Perriello and Giffords, Reps. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.) and Zack Space (D-Ohio) have already run television ads seeking to re-introduce themselves to voters before their opponents do so.
The four incumbents have much in common. They are all running in districts Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) carried in 2008; they are all top GOP targets with highly touted Republican opponents; and, they have all stocked away money -- lots of money -- to get a jump on the competition. At the end of March, Giffords had nearly $2 million in the bank. Perriello and Pomeroy each had $1.5 million, and Space had $1.3 million.
So will the Democratic strategy of "early and often" when it comes to television ads work?
A look at some of the earliest ads in the 2006 and 2008 cycles shows the incumbents who followed that strategy had mixed track records.
In 2006, Reps. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.) and Chris Chocola (R-Ind.) went on the air early in the summer months and went on to lose. Rep. Thelma Drake (R-Va.) went up on television in early June and won. She lost to Rep. Glenn Nye (D) two years later. (All three had been targeted by "red-handed" ads from MoveOn.org.)
In 2008, early commercials couldn't save Michigan Republican Rep. Tim Walberg but they helped Reps. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Sam Graves (R-Mo.) define their opponents early and win in swing districts.
Graves' odd first ad linked former Kansas City Mayor Kay Barnes (D) to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her "San Francisco values." Though it featured actors who looked more like 80s caricatures than hipster liberals, by launching it in May, Graves set a tone and drove home a message that helped him destroy the well-regarded Barnes by 22 points.
Kirk won plaudits for his 2008 win in a district that went for President Obama with 61 percent. Democrats acknowledge Kirk ran a great campaign in his rematch with 2006 candidate Dan Seals.
Like Kirk, the four Democrats up with early ads this cycle have faced tough battles before, and all but Pomeroy won their seats recently. Knowing the type of race ahead is half the battle for many members, and it's little surprise that those who have faced tough races before are the first ones on the air. (The Boy Scout motto of "be prepared" is also one of the fundamental rules of politics.)
Pomeroy, facing his first real electoral challenge since early last decade, went up with his first general election ad in April (!). He tapped his war chest early and sought to frame the debate with state Rep. Rick Berg (R) before Berg was even his party's nominee. But Berg will be financially competitive. He announced Thursday that he raised more than half a million dollars in the second quarter -- a strong sum for a challenger.
Giffords is in a similar situation. Even though the GOP favorite, former state Sen. Jonathan Paton, faces a primary, she recognizes his fundraising momentum and is getting a jump on the general election with her new ad.
Space is the only one of the four who has gone negative so far. His first ad goes after GOP nominee state Sen. Bob Gibbs. Factcheck.org has labeled the ad "misleading," and an Ohio elections commission panel has agreed to take up a complaint against Space.
Perriello's ad creatively shows the freshman congressman getting dirty (literally) while visiting all sorts of different job sites. It closes with the congressman, shirt stained, saying no one will work harder for jobs than he will.
History suggests that early ads are not guarantor for future victories. But, in an election as volatile as this one, the best/only course for incumbents to take is to get out in front of the anger and frustration of voters before it rolls them under.
This quartet is doing their level best to do just that. But will it work?
-- Aaron Blake
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