Pete Seat: Out of state races may overshadow those in Indiana
Friday, August 22, 2014 1:16 PM
By PETE SEAT
Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (top photo) may become more famous to Southern Indiana voters than the two Indiana nominees, Republican Secretary of State Connie Lawson (left) and Democrat Beth White. Grimes is facing U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell in a race that will draw millions of dollars in advertising in the Louisville TV market.
INDIANAPOLIS – Feel like there’s no intensity to the 2014 campaign? Don’t tell that to Hoosiers who get their news from Chicago, Cincinnati or Louisville. Hotly contested races in Illinois, Ohio and Kentucky are producing voter annoyance and fatigue in parts of Indiana, providing a ceiling for both parties working to parlay their work in 2014 into gains in 2016.
The issue is that candidates and parties have long been stymied by the geographic reality of our position in the heartland. I recall during the 2010 U.S. Senate race when Dan Coats traveled to Chicago for a series of television interviews only to be attacked by the opposition for “campaigning out of state.” I guess they didn’t get the memo that over 20 percent of Indiana residents live within the boundaries of those out-of-state markets. As a result, campaigns can find it difficult to effectively reach a substantial portion of voters with on-air messages come election time.
Republicans in Northwest Indiana are familiar with this struggle. The Chicago media market blankets Lake, Porter, LaPorte and other counties with news that is of little relevance to Hoosier viewers and that tends to help Democrats. For instance, as Chicago stations covered every breath of Barack Obama in 2007 and 2008 as if it were the exhalations of a demi-god, he was able to run up the score in that quadrant of the state and become the first Democrat to win Indiana’s Electoral College votes since 1964.
This year, the problem is especially pronounced in other parts of Indiana as the names Bruce Rauner, Alison Lundergan Grimes and Ed FitzGerald become more familiar to some Hoosier voters than the people who will actually appear on our ballots. Rauner, running against Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn; Lundergan Grimes, the challenger to U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky; and FitzGerald, the Democrat trying to unseat Ohio Gov. John Kasich; find themselves in competitive and costly races.
All three challengers are within single digits of the incumbent and plan to spend millions of dollars in television advertising, presumably to include the three major adjoining media markets that cover our state. In Kentucky alone it is estimated that a combined $100 million will be spent on the McConnell-Lundergan Grimes match-up, an untold portion of which will end up being funneled to Louisville television stations in exchange for valuable commercial airtime.
This provides Indiana candidates and political parties with a shared challenge in achieving their specific electoral goals and, surprisingly enough, representatives of the Republican and Democratic parties believe both will suffer come Election Day. “[The ads] just add to the growing weariness of politics; both parties are hurt,” one member of the Indiana Democratic State Central Committee told me. A Republican who sits on the organization’s statewide leadership team agreed in almost identical words saying that the barrage of ads “hurts both parties.”
What’s the remedy? They could do lower-cost cable television advertising. After all, who doesn’t love a political ad in the middle of Big Bang Theory re-runs? But the real remedy is in shifting the balance back to where it should have been all along: Good old-fashioned grassroots campaigning where candidates toss out the paid television plan and press the flesh to raise awareness for themselves and their campaigns. Instead of ominous dark clouds swirling on a screen describing the apocalyptic world to come if you vote for the other person, candidates can slap on a smile and meet actual human beings.
Of course, “grassroots has always been our strategy,” the Democratic committee member insisted, but a lot of campaigns find themselves hamstrung these days on how many “points” – a term used to describe the number of viewers an ad reaches – they can rack up, not how many voters they meet face to face.
To be fair, at the party level, the emphasis has more recently been on grassroots work as a result of the altered campaign finance landscape that leaves state party organizations on the short end of the contribution stick. To make up ground, the Indiana Republican Party is in the middle of their Hoosier Hustle campaign, an effort to drive volunteers to one of eight call centers in the state to connect with voters on Saturdays (in addition to calls being made throughout the week). Democrats are making the statewide rounds on a “We Can Do Better” tour to make their case to voters, an aggressive plan aimed at scooping up attention from the media without having to pay.
Those grassroots activities, together with paid television advertising in the Fort Wayne-Indianapolis-Evansville corridor, will do some of the heavy lifting toward 2014 and 2016 success. But without the crutch of television as an option in other parts of the state, will that be enough?
Pete Seat is senior project manager at the Indianapolis-based Hathaway Strategies and author of the recently published book “The War on Millennials.” He was previously a spokesman for President George W. Bush, U.S. Sen. Dan Coats and the Indiana Republican Party.