TV becoming more important in Delaware political campaigns

VOTE 1 COL by . DOVER — Last month’s Democratic primary for the U.S. House of Representatives was expected to be close.

State Sen. Bryan Townsend and former Labor Secretary Lisa Blunt Rochester were seen as the two favorites although 2014 treasurer nominee Sean Barney was also campaigning hard and pulling in donations.

Instead, as results began trickling in on the night of Sept. 13, Ms. Blunt Rochester spent virtually the entire time with a comfortable lead.

She ended up garnering 44 percent of the vote and winning by 19 percent, a margin that stunned many political observers.

How did she do it?

Many people took notice of her heavy spending on TV ads, something that set her apart from chief opponent, Sen. Townsend. His campaign, which included several people who are well-regarded in Delaware political circles, chose instead to focus on a more grassroots effort.

Delaware’s small size makes it somewhat unique for people running a statewide campaign. Unlike in most states, it’s feasible for candidates to actually meet a sizable percentage of the state’s voters, through door-knocking and attending local events. Because of that, retail politics holds tremendous importance for candidates hoping to get elected statewide.

Just how important it is may be changing, however.

The Democratic nominee for governor, U.S. Rep. John Carney whose seat Ms. Blunt Rochester is trying to fill, called the influence of TV “a very relevant question.”

“Before this primary I would have said absolutely Delaware was a retail politics state,” he said.

But now, although personally meeting voters remains important, being able to spread a message to thousands — or more — at one time is more valuable than ever, Rep. Carney said.

“You saw in these primary contests some of these candidates that were able to get on television were very successful,” he said.

State Sen. Colin Bonini, the Republican nominee for governor, said “statewide races are getting less retail every year,” although he believes TV ads are not a necessity to win a campaign.

He said he did not utilize television in his 2010 run for state treasurer, a race he lost by just 2 percent.

As for Ms. Blunt Rochester, she believes Delaware has become a “hybrid.”

TV ads, as well as social media, mailers and robocalls, can successfully connect candidates with newcomers to the state, but longtime Delawareans “have an expectation that you’re going to talk to your representatives, and to me that was really important,” Ms. Blunt Rochester said.

Attending myriad community events and local roundtables — “I can’t even count how many,” she said — helped her share ideas and hear concerns from voters. Meanwhile, advertisements helped keep her name fresh in many people’s heads.

Former Delaware GOP executive director John Fluharty said Ms. Blunt Rochester combined grassroots with large-scale campaigning often not seen in Delaware. Those methods allowed her to stand out from the other candidates in the primary.

“You have to touch every voter approximately nine or 10 times and … in many larger states you do that with radio and television, but in a state like Delaware it’s a combination of personally touching them at visits to their house, touching them at local events, town halls,” he said.

University of Delaware professor Paul Brewer said Delaware’s status as the second-smallest state makes retail politics both crucial and “relatively easy.”

“I run into politicians in Delaware without even seeking them out,” he said.

There’s another crucial factor: money.

The Blunt Rochester campaign spent $457,000 on TV, aided by the fact Ms. Blunt Rochester loaned herself at least $404,000.

Of course, just having the ability to run TV ads is no guarantee of success. Mr. Barney utilized television as well and saw the group VoteVets.org Action Fund spend $188,000 in support of his campaign, but he finished in third place, with 20 percent of the vote.

According to the Blunt Rochester campaign, it was outspent by the Barney campaign $95,000 to $63,000 in Sussex County. Despite that, Ms. Blunt Rochester managed to pull in the most votes in the county.

Her proposals and goals doubtless resonated with many Democrats, but several observers said TV helped set her apart.

History

Because northern Delaware, the most populous portion of the state, has no local TV stations, candidates hoping to run ads in New Castle County have to resort to Philadelphia TV.

While that guarantees a large audience will see the ads, many of the viewers live in Pennsylvania or New Jersey. That’s just something candidates have to accept, crossing their fingers the hefty sum is worth it.

Below the canal, it’s different. The Salisbury TV market is smaller and much cheaper, making it easier for candidates to afford advertisements.

The last time the governor’s seat was open, then Treasurer Jack Markell spent millions in his campaign. In September 2008, the month of the primary election, he paid $292,000, for instance, to the Campaign Group, a consulting firm that helps craft advertisements.

In 2007 and 2008 combined, he spent a total of $5.4 million. At least in terms of winning, it was worth it: He topped then Lt. Gov. Carney in a tight Democratic primary and then blew out Republican William Swain Lee in the general election.

Today, Gov. Markell says a combination of large-scale advertising and a personal touch works best.

“You have to get a message out there,” he said. “I think people have to know what you stand for, what you believe, what are your plans. And just shaking hands, it’s important, but it’s especially important in conjunction with getting a message, and so whether it’s TV, radio, direct mail, all of the above, that’s always been important.”

He said he has used the same strategy since 1998, when he first ran for treasurer.

Rep. Carney acknowledged the TV blitz from his rival for the Democratic nomination eight years ago played a big role in determining the outcome of that race.

This year, he is the one with the cash advantage.

As a three-term congressman with a healthy sum of $450,000 on hand as of the end of 2015, he’s in a different position now. Although the gubernatorial hopeful plans to run TV ads, he still tries to have that “personal touch.”

It’s quite different from his first campaign, a run for lieutenant governor in 2000, when, he said, “I spent most of my time in front of grocery stores.”

Because Delaware is a small state and many of its recent statewide races have not been especially competitive, spending — at least from Republicans — has been limited.

The open seat in the House this year led to a crowded primary with big spending. As of Aug. 24, Ms. Blunt Rochester, Sen. Townsend and Mr. Barney has spent about $1.6 million, a total that does not include the 20 days before the primary or the $400,000 spent by outside advocacy groups.

Many Democratic candidates have not had a pressing need to run TV ads in recent years, due to the state’s strong Democratic slant and relatively weak Republican nominees.

Dr. Brewer speculated that should Sen. Tom Carper face a challenge from an “unusually strong Republican,” such as Treasurer Ken Simpler, in 2018, the state could play host to a fierce battle with money flowing in from powerful Republican donors, some out of state.

This year’s primary was a “perfect storm” for TV, he said.

According to Delaware Democratic Party Sussex County Chairman Mitch Crane, TV ads are most effective in general elections of presidential years, when turnout is highest.

“You can’t knock on half a million doors,” he said.

That means there could be more advertisements over the next six weeks, to say nothing of presidential ads the state might see.

How much TV matters in future elections remains to be seen.

“Personal contact is critical in Delaware but it doesn’t diminish the role of television and television doesn’t diminish the role of personal contact,” Mr. Fluharty, the GOP strategist, said.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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