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Money talks, but do voters listen?

By Rhonda McBride 10:29 PM December 23, 2013

Record spending expected in Alaska's 2014 U.S. Senate race

ANCHORAGE – Marc Hellenthal is no casual observer of Alaska politics. As a pollster and a researcher, he’s had his finger on the pulse of Alaska politics for decades. And he’s not surprised to find the pulse of the 2014 Senate race already racing, thanks to outside money being pumped into the state.

“This will be the most expensive race in the history of Alaska,” Hellenthal said. “I expect over $10 million to be spent.”

Hellenthal’s prediction comes as a Washington-based political action committee, the Judicial Crisis Network, launches a two-week ad blitz, targeting Sen. Mark Begich. The TV spots criticize Begich for rubber-stamping President Obama’s choices for the judiciary.

JCN’s website doesn’t say who its members are or where its money comes from. Through an email from its public relations firm, JCN announced it’s spending money in the “six figures” for this latest Alaska ad campaign.

JCN is also running almost identical ads against two other Senate democrats, Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu and Arkansas’ Mark Pryor.

This isn’t the first round of attack ads for Begich. The Americans for Prosperity, which is funded by two billionaire political activists, David and Charles Koch, ran commercials criticizing Begich for his stand on health care.

The ad featured a woman who appeared to present herself as an Alaskan, but turned out to be an actress from Maryland.

“I think it is going to be a continual effort by these Outside groups that just want to influence what goes on in Alaska, that they really have no interest in Alaska, other than trying to win a seat,” said Sen. Mark Begich, who believes the ads have a negative impact. “You put out that kind of misinformation, and you spend a lot of money doing it, people start to wonder if it’s true.”

The cost of answering attack ads usually drives up overall campaign spending.

Hellenthal, who currently does not work for any of the Senate candidates, said Begich has made some effective pre-emptive strikes.

Hellenthal compared numbers on Begich’s popularity, before and after a series of radio ads Begich ran, and found the senator’s numbers improved.

“In general he was running 50/50 on his positive and negative numbers,” Hellenthal said. “The same number of people liked him as disliked him, percentage-wise.”

After the radio commercials aired: “He changed that to almost a 60/30, with 60 percent of the people liking him and 30 percent of the people disliking him,” Hellenthal said.

Hellenthal believes Mark Begich will have plenty of cash on hand from outside groups. And he will need it to rebut the onslaught of negative ads.

“It’s kind of like jello,” Hellenthal said. “It wiggles around a little bit. But if it sits there long enough, it turns into concrete. And it takes a jackhammer to change it.”

Hellenthal predicts Begich will spend $2 to $3 million on his own campaign — and may have to shell out more money on the primary than an incumbent would typically spend because the Republican primary has a strong slate of three candidates who each have a good chance of winning — former Senate candidate Joe Miller, Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell and former Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Dan Sullivan.

Hellenthal believes this matchup could keep Begich out of the political spotlight in the months leading up to the primary.

“When people aren’t paying attention to you, that’s not good in politics as a rule,” Hellenthal said.

Another pollster, Matt Larkin of Dittman Research, believes the 2014 Senate race will set new records for campaign spending, though not as much as Hellenthal is predicting. Both Larkin’s company and Hellenthal’s represent primarily conservative candidates.

“With the balance of the U.S. Senate in play, I think we can expect to see money from both sides of the aisle pouring in,” Larkin said.

Political action committees outside Alaska see the state as a place where they can swing a race with minimal investment, he said.

“Compared to other states, Alaska’s a cheap date,” Larkin said. “Most of the people are concentrated in a handful of media markets.”

Hellenthal agrees on Alaska’s appeal to outside groups.

“It’s perceived nationally that Begich can be beat, so you’ve got an awful lot of money, even international money interests, in this race,” Hellenthal said. “This is pocket lint in comparison, as far as money is concerned.”

Hellenthal estimates campaign spending for an Alaska Senate race at around $4 million.

Pocket lint or not, Larkin sees the millions of campaign spending that will come to Alaska over the next 10 months as a boost for the state’s economy — and specifically for his business. Larkin said he was approached by Freedom Frontier, a group which wants to invest money in Treadwell’s campaign, before the primary.

It’s just another sign that when it comes to politics, money talks. But it remains to be seen what will win the voter’s ear, especially after long months of being bombarded with attack ads and the inevitable campaign fatigue sets in.

“It’s got all the makings of a very, very interesting race,” Hellenthal  said of the primary and the general election, both of which will be hard to predict. “It’ll be fun, no matter what.”

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