Where Did That $57 Million Go?

More than $57 million was spent on Alaska’s U.S. Senate race, which comes to about $230 per vote cast, and the campaigns aren’t done reporting their spending totals. If you’re looking for where it went, start with where a lot of it came from: Out of state.

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Many of those millions never made it to Alaska.  About a third of the total went to out of state companies for things like Internet ads, robocalls, mailers, advertising commissions and strategic advice.

What remained in Alaska was paid largely to local TV stations. More than half of the $40 million spent by superPACs and other outside groups bought airtime on Alaska’s radio and TV stations. The candidates are done reporting their expenditures yet, but it looks like the majority of their money went to media expenditures as well.

“The unreported story of the election cycle is how particularly electronic media gouges in the political cycle,” says Jim Lottsfeldt, who spent $10 million through the Put Alaska First superPAC to press for Sen. Begich’s re-election.  He’s sipping piña coladas in Hawaii this week, but he’s still irked at what he had to pay to get his ads on air.

While stations are required to give candidates their lowest rate, the same does not apply to other political advertisers.  So, in the week before the election, the candidates paid just $450 for a 30-second spot on Anchorage TV news. Put Alaska First, along with its Republican counterparts, paid $7,500. Lottsfeldt says it’s not right.

“TV and radio stations just start adding zeros to the cost they would charge any other customers. It’s ridiculous,” he said.

Did you happen to watch the NFL game on the Sunday before the election?  Put Alaska First paid Anchorage station KTUU a whopping $35,000 to run one 30-second spot during that game.  He had the money (thanks largely to contributions from a PAC associated with Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid) so he didn’t dwell on such costs. But Lottsfeldt says rates like that are a big reason campaign spending went so high.

“So when people talk about wanting to get all the big money out of politics they should have an honest conversation with TV stations and radio stations,” he said.

Elizabeth Wilner, who analyses campaign spending for the research firm Kantar Media, says the situation may be exacerbated in Alaska because it lacks competition in local cable. And because Anchorage has one especially dominant TV station.

“Sometimes you’ll get political advertisers get better rates by playing different platforms off one another. You can’t do that in Alaska because you just don’t have that many options,” she said.

KTUU General Manager Andy MacLeod says he doesn’t know yet exactly how much ad revenue the political season brought to his station.

“There’s no question it’s a significant number,” he said. “Is it a windfall? Yes.”

MacLeod says KTUU reaped most of the total airtime buy because it’s got by far the bigger audience, especially for local news. In fact, the station ran more Senate ads this cycle than any other station in the country. And MacLeod’s unapologetic about making money off political ads.

“The political landscape is a revenue driver that happens every even year,” he said. ” Sometimes large, sometimes small.”

To avoid pricing regular customers and candidates off the air, McLeod says KTUU essentially reserves a slice of its ad time for the non-candidate political advertisers. Then it’s an auction, and the well-funded political groups bid the rate higher and higher.  MacLeod says the cost of that airtime can’t be compared to regular ads.

“They really reflect the value of, in this case, a senate seat. They reflect the value of party control of the Senate,” he said.

TVstations didn’t get all of the campaign money spent in-state. Some of it paid wages for local workers, for hotels and rental cars, and for newspaper advertising. But all told, the checks outside groups paid to Alaskans other than broadcast stations, came to about $3 million.

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

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