Big Outside Money Expected For US Senate Race

Outside money is expected to pour into the race for the U.S. Senate seat held by Mark Begich, and the first of it is making a splash across Alaska’s TV sets.

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Last month, it was an anti-Begich ad from Americans for Prosperity, a group linked to conservative billionaires David and Charles Koch. Now a pro-Begich super PAC is weighing in with an ad of its own. Alaskans can expect a lot more in the months to come.

The anti-Begich ad featured an unnamed woman with long reddish hair in a kitchen, tying Begich to the Affordable Care Act.

“Sen. Begich didn’t listen. How can I ever trust him again? It just isn’t fair,” the woman said.

The new TV spot also features a woman with long reddish hair, also in a kitchen, but her name appears on screen. She’s Megan Collie, of Anchorage.

“That ad, attacking Sen. Begich? It turns out she’s an actress, from Washington, DC, pretending to be from Alaska. I’m not an actress. I live here and I trust Mark Begich. He’s trying to fix the healthcare law,” she said in the new TV spot.

The message is the first public appearance of a Super PAC called Put Alaska First, which spent nearly $100,000 on it. Its treasurer is Anchorage lobbyist Jim Lottsfeldt.

“ Honestly we weren’t planning to come out this early but it’s clear in 2014 politics across the nation, the Koch brothers are on the attack and we thought it was smart to start our defense sooner rather than later,” Lottsfeldt said.

While his ad emphasizes its Alaska bona fides, Lottsfeldt acknowledges he’s paying for it with out-of-state money.

“I am seeking people who are giving big dollar amounts to do this because it’s the only way effectively it works,” Lottsfeldt said. “I’m not holding bake sales. I’m going to people who can donate large amounts of money and asking them to donate.”

He says he’ll disclose the donor list when he’s required to in January. But he says the six-figure spending he’s reported so far came from just a few people.

Super PACs like his, along with so called “dark money” groups that don’t have to name their donors, are sure to be a multi-million force in Alaska’s Senate race.

Unlike a candidate’s campaign, these groups can raise unlimited amounts of money, from anybody:  corporations, unions or just rich people who want to influence the makeup of the U.S. Senate. But they can’t contribute to candidates and they can’t coordinate their strategy with a candidate’s campaign.

SuperPACs have formed to support Republican Senate candidates Mead Treadwell and Dan Sullivan, too, put they haven’t reported any of their spending yet.

To get an idea of how much money these sort of groups can inject in a race, take a look at Montana. Two years ago, about $55 million was spent on the U.S. Senate contest there, more than half of it by outside groups.

Montana Political Science professor David Parker says the Alaska race is likely to attract a flood of outside money for the same reasons Montana did. To start with, Parker says, they both have small populations, so TV time is cheaper than in big-city media markets.

“So No. 1 is the cost of advertising. A lot of bang for your buck,” Parker said.

Also, Parker says, the Senate’s political landscape is much the same this time.  It’s closely divided between the parties, and nationwide, Parker sees only 5 or 6 seats on the ballot that could go either way, to a Republican or a Democrat.

“So if you’re trying to swing the balance of power nationally, you go to the competitive seats and guess what, Alaska’s one of them,” Parker said. “Why do these outside groups care? It’s not so much about Alaska issues but the broader national implications of the balance of power in the United States Senate.”

Professor Parker says the ads Alaskans are starting to see are only the most visible of the political spending. Outside groups spent millions in Montana on the ground war. These weren’t your standard door-knocking, get-out-the-vote campaigns. Parker says they used, among other tools, statistical modeling, crossing – for example – poll results with consumer purchase histories to micro-target.

“And they’ll look for trends out of their sample and they’ll say, ‘hey, I notice that these people who drink Folger’s Crystals – whatever – are more likely to have this argument about Mitt Romney resonate with them,’” he said. “So they find all the people who drink Folger’s Crystals and they send targeted messaging and people to the doors to give them that message in person.”

Alaskans, he says, can expect much the same. If the spending in the Alaska race reaches Montana proportions, it would amount to more than $200 per likely voter.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at Read more about Liz here.

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