Earlier this week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell released another ad against his primary opponent, businessman Matt Bevin. Here’s the video:
Now, you might think to yourself, damn, it’s August of the off-year, McConnell is about 50 points ahead, so what’s going on here? Some have suggested, that this is a sign McConnell is scared — and yes, this has to be considered. Even if he isn’t scared of Bevin, he might be concerned that this whole business is going to harm his chances in the general election.
If Bevin’s going to get an opening, it has to involve some kind of exploitation of discontent on the the Right. That’s going to require creating some daylight between McConnell and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who has become a close ally. What better, then, than this story involving McConnell’s campaign manager, a Rand Paul staffer named Jesse Benton. Benton, a friendly acquaintance of the writer, apparently described the job in a private intra-Paul-world conversation (secretly recorded and released for apparently unrelated but sordid reasons) as “holding my nose” for the advancement of Paul’s 2016 presidential campaign. (Actually it’s not too odd if you know a little bit about Paul-world, but it’s not going to help McConnell with the average Kentucky GOP primary voter.)
Anyway, no matter how much or how little trouble McConnell is facing at the moment, his early-ad strategy is not only sound but also the new industry standard. When you’re faced with your own troubles, recent campaign history suggests that the best strategy is to carpet-bomb your opponents as often and as early as possible.
I’d point not only to President Obama’s effort — in which he won by slamming Mitt Romney early while the latter waited until too late to buy his ads — but also Harry Reid’s race in 2010. The latter is a model for McConnell’s current campaign. Two Senate leaders, somewhat unpopular in their home states, looking for a way to win anyway. And Reid, of course, was in much, much worse shape at this point in 2009.
From the moment Sharron Angle won the Republican nomination in June 2010, Reid started hammering her with millions of dollars in advertising, in order to define her early on. Her people had the sense to respond immediately and burn through as much cash as they could raise, but even that wasn’t enough — and many opponents lack access to the kind of resources she had. Reid had abysmal approval ratings in 2009-10, and he trailed in the polls for most of the campaign. Yet after spending $12 million just on media — not counting staff or any other campaign expense — he ended up winning comfortably.
The notion of saving up money until the end of a race is simply obsolete. The closer an election gets, the more likely voters have already made up their mind based on earlier impressions — often the ones created by the early ads. The new philosophy is that it’s worth making the initial investment to put your opponent’s flame out as early as possible. Not only does this drive up an opponent’s negatives, but it also prevents the race from becoming a referendum on you.
McConnell doesn’t want a referendum on himself — in fact, he wants the general election race to be a referendum on Barack Obama, and he wants the primary to be a contest between him and the guy who doesn’t pay his taxes (or takes bailouts, or whatever).
McConnell faces two separate challenges — this primary, which the early polling suggests is just a nuisance (though who knows?), and then a very competitive general election in which his own against a serious but inexperienced and not necessarily top-shelf opponent who’s showing early signs she could win.