This year’s crop of campaign ads in Washington state races might seem nastier than in past years — or they might not. It depends on where you live.
The reason is simple: Few seats in the Legislature have a shot at switching parties this fall, so huge amounts of advertising are landing in voter mailboxes in just a handful of districts around the state.
And the spending is sky high, especially in Senate races that could decide whether Democrats control both chambers of the Legislature. The top five races already cost more than $1 million and one tops $2.68 million, with a lot of the money spent by independent groups putting out hard-hitting, and sometimes false, pieces.
“I think if you didn’t live in one of those ... districts, you would barely know anything is going on,” Western Washington University professor Todd Donovan said.
Donovan has watched the flood of negative mailers in the 42nd District that includes his university. The fight between Republican Sen. Doug Ericksen of Ferndale and Democratic challenger Seth Fleetwood has seen $1.68 million spent as of Friday.
It is one of the top five for spending and among the seats Democrats are targeting in a bid to win back the Senate from a Republican-led coalition that holds a 26-23 majority today.
Other targets are:
• Sen. Andy Hill, the GOP’s top budget writer, who is challenged by Democrat Matt Isenhower in the Bellevue suburbs of the 45th. This is the most expensive legislative race at $2.68 million.
• Sen. Steve O’Ban, the Republican in the 28th, is challenged by Democratic state Rep. Tami Green for a seat representing the Lakewood-Tacoma area; the cost so far is nearly $2.2 million.
• Sen. Tim Sheldon, the Democrat who aligned with the GOP to take control of the Senate, is challenged by Democrat Irene Bowling in the rural 35th District that reaches from Bremerton almost to Olympia; the cost so far is more than $1.7 million.
• Republican Mark Miloscia who is facing Democrat Shari Song for an open seat in the 31st District around Federal Way.
“There’s a lot at stake — they’ll determine control of the Senate,’’ said Seattle pollster Stuart Elway, who sees few competitive races and lots of money available to put into them.
He said the same is true nationally where politics have been so divided for so long “that every election could tip the balance of power one way or the other. It doesn’t change much (of) the policy because neither side can get anything done. I think that adds to both the money and the tone or tenor of the campaigns.”
Feeding a lot of the spending are outside groups that produce mailings and ads independent of the campaigns, and this adds to the negativity the mailings, former state Democratic Party chairman Paul Berendt said.
“There is more mail and advertising this year in state legislative races because there has been more spending by outside independent sources such as the Koch Brothers and Tom Steyer and a concentration of other resources on fewer and fewer races,” Berendt said in an email.
Steyer, a billionaire hedge-fund owner trying to elect leaders who advocate for fighting climate change, put $1.25 million into his state climate-action PAC, which has given to groups active in the Senate races. Koch Industries has oil and coal investments and is among the biggest contributors to the national Republican State Leadership Committee, the largest single donor to a state Senate Republican PAC.
“In a year when many voters are tuned out and aren’t motivated to go to the polls, the messages have grown more vitriolic and shrill,” Berendt said. “This is aimed at pressing hot button issues that drive base voters to return their ballot.”
Donovan agreed that ads increase turnout. “The more that is spent in a district, voters are not going to like it but they are more likely to vote. You can’t avoid — your ballot is sitting there and you’re reminded every day there’s an election,” he said.
In some races, independent groups have outspent the candidates. Third parties, for example, have spent more than $1 million to promote Sheldon, attack Bowling or promote the challenger in that race.
Democratic ads attacking Sheldon question his service in two public offices at the same time, questioning why he should earn two salaries while missing some Mason County Board of Commissioners meetings. His Republican allies have attacked Bowling with claims that she supports policies that could boost gas prices by $1 per gallon.
O’Ban is similarly hitting Green with claims about her support for a supposed carbon-tax proposal that doesn’t quite exist, while women’s groups and Democratic PACs hit O’Ban for insufficient support for women’s health concerns.
Chris Vance, the former chairman of the state Republican party and a political consultant, sees another reason for the spending coming from the Democratic side. He said primary results were so good for the GOP that Democrats “are just thrashing around, throwing stuff at the walls, trying to change the dynamics of the race going against them.”
“The Republican consultants who are working on legislative campaigns have told me that they have been shocked at the things the Democrats have been saying and doing,” Vance said. “They believe the Democrats are desperate.”
Donovan and Travis Ridout, a political science professor at Washington State University who mostly follows national campaign ad issues, said outside groups tend to be less accountable for their mailings than a candidate, and this means their ads tend to be more negative.
Indeed, some independent groups allied with both parties this year have declined to show proof for the claims they are making — or did not return reporters’ phone calls when the “proof” cited on mailers proved to be dubious. And one Washington, D.C., group backing Democrats has insisted it doesn’t need to tell the state Public Disclosure Commission where its funds are coming from.
Donovan said the most striking mailer he’s seen was in the 42nd District’s Ericksen-Fleetwood race where the state Democratic Party evoked the famous “Daisy” ad that was used by Democrats in 1964 to highlight the conservatism of GOP presidential candidate Barry Goldwater.
This time instead of a little girl with a daisy who disappears into a nuclear blast, one side of the anti-Ericksen mailer shows a little girl with a flower, and it states that Fleetwood can be trusted to deal with oil-train dangers. The flip side shows a fiery conflagration tied to an exploding train loaded with Bakken crude oil, and it notes Ericksen’s strong ties to the oil industry.
Not to be outdone, Republican-allied groups have sent a mailer showing Fleetwood in dark glasses. It says wealthy donors “loaned him a multi-million dollar mansion to live in while he runs for office.”