At Color Art Printing in Anchorage, Deanna Teders is ready for work to slow down. With two weeks to go until Election Day, this is peak season for campaign mailers, and as a unionized print shop, Color Art is particularly popular among Democratic candidates.
“We’re moving. We’re working double shifts, whether our digital department or offset (printing) or press room,” said Deanna Teders, who owns the business with her husband, Richard.
“My husband … he’s cutting paper all day long, cutting it to go on the press, and then after it’s printed, you’ve got to cut it to take it to the mail house. So yeah, we’ve been moving, all of us,” she said.
The flood of campaign-related mailers hitting Alaskans’ mailboxes last week, this week and next is intended to sway voters, but it also illustrates trends in this year’s races.
Because the cost of campaign mail is high when compared to other forms of advertising, third-party groups are focusing their attention on a relative handful of races, illustrating what contests are expected to be close, and thus important for control of the state House and Senate.
Experts say the number of mailers is down this year from what it was in 2020 as candidates shift to cheaper digital ads, but Teders said she doesn’t think business at her shop is down much from that year.
“You’ve got a lot of things going on,” she said. “You’ve got a governor race to a Senate race, you’ve got Congress, you’ve got all the House and Senate races. It’s crazy. There’s a lot of it all at one time,” she said.
Candidates at the state and federal level are required to file regular reports with the Alaska Public Offices Commission and the Federal Elections Commission, respectively, that show their spending, including their spending on mailers.
Biggest money in U.S. Senate race
The biggest spender of this year’s election to date has been the Senate Leadership Fund, a group associated with U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican minority leader of the Senate.
After pledging to spend more than $7 million in support of Lisa Murkowski’s re-election campaign, the group reduced its spending in Alaska to about $5 million following Murkowski’s stronger-than-expected performance in the Aug. 16 primary election.
That money was spent on more than just mailed ads, but regardless of the format, the ads from the Senate Leadership Fund have been sharply critical of Murkowski’s principal Republican opponent, Kelly Tshibaka.
As previously noted by the Anchorage Daily News, that criticism has freed Murkowski to take a positive message with her advertising, including her mailed messages. The Senate Leadership Fund’s actions also inspired the Alaska Republican Party to formally censure — or reprimand — McConnell for the group’s actions. The party had previously voted to support Tshibaka and censure Murkowski.
Third-party groups like the Senate Leadership Fund can’t coordinate with official campaigns but are subject to fewer restrictions on the amount of money they can collect or spend.
A third-party group called Alaskans for L.I.S.A. is the largest organization devoted entirely to a race in Alaska this year, having reported some $4.1 million in spending by Sept. 30.
Jim Lottsfeldt is a political consultant working for the group and said national organizations, regardless of the race, are the biggest buyers of mailed information, largely because of the cost. He estimated that it costs between 70 cents and $1 per item, per voter.
“Those organizations will budget for a mail program, and a mail program is maybe once per week, and then in the final weeks, that’s twice (per week),” he said.
“In Alaska alone, you’ll spend hundreds of thousands to maybe a million dollars on it,” he said.
When he coordinated a third-party group supporting Mark Begich’s re-election campaign in 2014, he spent $11 million.
“And I bet we spent a million and a half just on mail. With inflation, I’d probably be spending $2.5 million today,” he said.
Governor candidates also spending on mail
Because of those expenses, most campaign mail is in statewide races, whether for the U.S. House, U.S. Senate, or the race for governor.
The national Republican Governors Association has earmarked $3 million to support incumbent Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s re-election campaign and this week disclosed more than $315,000 in mailed ads supporting Dunleavy and opposing Democratic candidate Les Gara and independent candidate Bill Walker. The RGA has been the subject of a complaint filed with the state’s campaign regulators.
Dunleavy’s campaign has bought mailers criticizing Gara and Walker as well. One fluorescent pink mailer noted that Gara is “the only pro-choice candidate” in the race, something that Gara himself has campaigned on.
Gara’s latest campaign filing indicated over $120,000 in mail expenses, including some provided by the Alaska Democratic Party, while Walker’s latest filing indicated substantially less spent on mailed campaign ads. Differences in the language used in reports make exact comparisons difficult, and campaigns are due to submit another disclosure next week.
Lottsfeldt said that traditionally, most advertising dollars are spent on TV, with that being a candidate’s main message.
“We figured out that digital is, you know, equally as strong, but still TV gets the most attention. Most of us treat mail — I wouldn’t say as an afterthought — but it is something that is built to support TV, as opposed to lead with mail,” he said.
Kim Hays, of the union-backed Putting Alaskans First Committee, said that mail spending is getting smaller and smaller each year, but many Alaskans still rely on the mail.
“We do know that people still look for that mail,” she said, “And I think a lot of people think the more mail you get, the closer the races, and maybe that inspires them to get out (and vote) too. So I think mail is still a tactic and still a tool in the toolbox that we’re using,” she said.
Expense limits legislative mailers
In state legislative races, the expense of mailed material encourages candidates to limit their mailings. Political operations typically target mailers at addresses in the publicly available state voter database, then can use a third-party database to further limit their mailings by political persuasion.
Though candidates now have access to more money because individual donation limits have been eliminated, financial disclosures show few mailings by individual candidates.
“Really, I think you’re seeing less mailers with local candidates than you’ve ever seen before,” said Cherie Curry of WINfluence Strategies, a firm advising some legislative candidates this year.
“They’re moving to digital,” she said.
That includes video ads on streaming services like YouTube, Hulu and Apple TV, as well as static ads on Facebook.
Campaign disclosures show third-party groups focusing campaign mailers on the state Senate races in Eagle River, South Anchorage, West Anchorage and downtown Fairbanks.
In the state House, races in downtown Fairbanks and in Anchorage are getting attention from third-party groups. In particular, three Anchorage races stand out: the Midtown race between Republican Kathy Henslee and Democrat Andy Josephson; the East Anchorage race between Democrat Donna Mears and Republican Forrest Wolfe; and the other East Anchorage race, between Democrat Ted Eischeid and Republican Stanley Wright.
The national Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee is spending $13,000 on mailers to oppose Republicans in those districts, and a handful of others, while Alaska Policy Partners, a conservative group, is spending $110,000 on ads, including mailers, to support Republicans in those areas and others.
The Putting Alaskans First Committee is spending more than $50,000 to support the re-election of Sens. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, and Click Bishop, R-Fairbanks. It’s spending additional money on other races, too.
Hays said her group tried to get its ads out early this year. Heading into the last week before the election, people will be overwhelmed. The last mailers, experts say, will head out the door by the end of this week, arriving next week.
“They’re going to get inundated,” she said, “by phone calls and people knocking on their door. So we tried to get ours out early.”
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