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Outside groups fuel Brown-Warren ad war

Negative messages get heavy TV play

By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / November 11, 2011

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For days, Eastern Massachusetts television viewers have seen a fake Senator Scott Brown dumping trash from his smog-spewing truck. Yesterday, images of Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren, juxtaposed with protesters waving a socialist banner, began showing up on televisions statewide.

If you believe the barrage of ads, the 2012 Senate race will pit the oil company pawn against the campus radical, the first shots in a race that some strategists say could generate $60 million in television spending.

The League of Conservation Voters, which is running the anti-Brown spots, says it is spending $1.85 million over the course of about a month, or enough to make sure that the average television viewer in the Boston area sees its ads 25 times.

By Wednesday, outside groups had already spent more money targeting Brown than any other senator in the country, according to both a Republican strategist and a nonpartisan political tracking media firm. That ranking could change soon, given how rapidly political money is being spent across the country.

Democrats say that the high cost of advertising in Boston distorts the ranking and that viewers in at least three other states - Ohio, Montana, and Florida - have been seeing a greater number of attack ads against sitting senators.

Nationally, groups of all stripes had spent between $16 and $17 million by Wednesday targeting US senators in 2011, said Ken Goldstein, president of Kantar Media, Campaign Media Analysis Group. Of that, more than $3 million has been spent on Brown.

Warren is among the first Senate challengers to be the subject of a negative ad, a $596,000 buy that went up yesterday as part of a package of commercials targeting candidates in five states. The ads have been purchased by Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, a political committee founded by Republican strategist Karl Rove.

“If we talk in four months or six months or eight months or next year, it’s going to seem kind of quaint that we were talking about such low levels of money,’’ said Goldstein. “Massachusetts is going to be one of those Armageddon Senate races.’’

Liberal and Democratic-leaning interest groups consider Brown’s seat, along with that of Senator Dean Helle of Nevada, to be the Democratic Party’s best chance to knock off a Republican in a year that is otherwise expected to favor the GOP.

Brown won a close special election victory in January 2011. But the 2012 race will take place in a presidential election year, when turnout is higher and the political mood is traditionally more partisan. That could help Massachusetts Democrats, who have an advantage in voter registration and political organization.

But Brown has proven an elusive target, one of a handful of Republican senators who have crossed party lines at times to side with Democrats.

Conservatives also have a lot at stake in his reelection, given the close margin Republicans are expected to face in their attempt to gain control of the Senate.

Goldstein expects the groups supporting Brown will match the spending of those opposing him, perhaps sooner than later.

“We’re going to have a year where there’s going to be so much advertising chasing so few undecided voters,’’ Goldstein said. “Groups on both sides are likely to start earlier . . . [because] there’s less noise now.’’

Though Brown has benefited from outside groups, he said in a statement yesterday that he would like them to go away.

“We need to focus on the very real issue of putting people back to work,’’ Brown said. “I wish all these ads from outside groups would be taken down.’’

Warren’s campaign denounced the ads lobbed against her.

“Elizabeth knew there were going to be a bunch of ridiculous attack ads against her,’’ spokesman Kyle Sullivan said. “She wishes they weren’t a part of the campaign. She’s staying focused on the fight for middle-class families and holding accountable those who broke our economy.’’

The two major anti-Brown advertisements that have run so far this year technically fall under the category of issue ads, because they are ostensibly trying to persuade him to alter his positions. The sponsors of those campaigns, the League of Conservation Voters and the League of Women Voters, have targeted Brown on his environmental positions. Both groups have pointed out that they have concurrently run ads against Democrats, in other states, based on those lawmakers’ environmental positions.

Navin Nayak, the League of Conservation Voters’ senior vice president of campaigns, said the group has targeted two Republican senators, two Republican House members, and two Democratic House members in this round of issue ads. The anti-Brown ads are the most expensive.

Nayak said the group’s polling has shown that Brown’s environmental positions are at odds with two-thirds of the state’s voters. He has received a zero rating on the group’s voting scorecard, which includes a vote to continue subsidies for large oil companies.

“He’s from a state where these issues should be completely bi-partisan,’’ Nayak said.

Brown has defended his record in an online video and an op-ed in the Lowell Sun, saying the group’s calculations of his record include his support for a border fence. But he has not bought television time to defend himself.

Republican political consultant Rob Gray, who is not working with Brown, said he does not believe Brown needs to respond at this point in the campaign. Gray predicts the spending on both sides will accelerate to a total of $60 million, including outside groups, by the time voters hit the polls in about a year. Goldstein agreed.

A negative ad “hurts if it’s sustained and if it’s believable,’’ Gray said. Brown’s poll numbers “are still decent,’’ he said. “They’re not great, but they’re decent. A month of ads against him is not going to have a lasting impact unless that kind of barrage continues on an almost constant basis.’’

But in one recent Massachusetts example, negative ads have made an impact. In last year’s gubernatorial election, independent candidate Timothy P. Cahill never recovered from such an onslaught, a series of devastating ads paid for by the Republican Governors Association.

“He never got up after that,’’ said Dan Payne, a Democratic consultant who is not involved in the election. “That was because people had no opinion of Tim Cahill at that moment. He didn’t bother to introduce himself.’’

Payne said that in Brown’s case “people do feel they know him, so it won’t be as effective.’’

Polls show that Warren, who must still win her party’s nomination, is not as familiar to voters as Brown. The state Republican Party has tried to depict her as someone outside the mainstream, producing an online video calling her the “Matriarch of Mayhem’’ after she said in an interview that she created “much of the intellectual foundation’’ for the Occupy Wall Street movement.

The ad that launched yesterday continues on that theme, showing images of protesters alongside Warren’s face.

Noah Bierman can be reached at nbierman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @noahbierman.