Heck-Cortez Senate Race Could Set New Spending Record

By Frank X. Mullen

frank-caractureThe mean season arrived early this election cycle, and the contest for Sen. Harry Reid’s Senate seat – which pits Rep. Joe Heck against former Nevada attorney general Catherine Cortez-Masto – promises to be one of the nastiest and most expensive of any Congressional race.

“The nasty ads from the Political Action Committees attack the integrity of both candidates,” says Fred Lokken, political science professor at Truckee Meadows Community College. “The spots are aimed at disqualifying every candidate…and it’s only going to get worse.”

In 2010, the same Senate campaign – between incumbent Reid and challenger Sharron Angle – set a Congressional record of $100 million in donations, with each candidate raising $25 million individually and $25 million raised by the PACs on either side. Most of that money went into television spots. “Elections were always financial windfalls for TV stations, but after the Citizen’s United ruling, the amount of money going into campaigns got way out of hand,” says Erin Breen, a veteran Reno TV broadcaster. “The money just pours in to the PACs and winds up in television ads.”

For example, The End Citizens United PAC is buying $1.5 million in airtime for commercials in Nevada and New Hampshire supporting Cortez Masto. PACs supported by the billionaire Koch brothers and others are pouring cash into ads supporting Heck and attacking Masto.

Expect spending to steadily increase as we get closer to November. Lokken says the current senate contest may top the $100 million 2010 campaign spending record.

Cortez Masto’s campaign directly raised $7.1 million before the May reporting deadline, according to the Federal Election Commission, as compared with the $6.3 million raised by Heck in the same period.  After the primary campaign, Heck reported $4.79 million cash on hand in filings for the period that ended June 30, while Cortez Masto’s campaign reported $3.4 million cash on hand. That doesn’t count the millions being spent by PACs that support either candidate. Opensecrets.com, which tracks money spent by super PACS, ranks the Nevada Senate race as the fourth-highest receiver of outside money among senatorial races so far this election cycle.

There are a few positive spots. The “meet the candidate” campaign ads promoted Cortez Masto as a fighter against human trafficking, while Heck’s spots emphasized his military background.

But negative PAC ads rule; they pound the television viewer during the day and reach a crescendo during Prime Time. In some commercials, Heck is painted as the paid crony of Wall Street and buddy of the big banks, an elite who wants to privatize Social Security. Another spot TV centers on his anti-abortion positions and his repeated efforts to defund Planned Parenthood.  A PAC-funded ad accuses Cortez-Masto of driving the ride-sharing service Uber out of the state at the apparent behest of the Nevada taxi industry, which the ad says contributed to her campaign. Commercials  also skewer Cortez Masto for alleged gifts she received while attorney general.

Polls show the Senate race is very close, with Heck either tied with or just a point or two ahead of Cortez-Masto. The race is rated a “Tossup” by The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report /Roll Call. Voter turnout may be the deciding factor, Lokken says. If Democrats come out in force, Heck may be swept aside.

 He notes that candidates rarely if ever win as a result of an informed electorate making reasoned decisions among candidates. In the midst of the bombardment of propaganda, half-truths and outright lies on the television and the Internet, he says, voters can get shell-shocked.

“If you’re a voter, it’s really hard to find information,” Lokken says. “There are good articles about issues, but it’s really hard to get those on your doorstep or on the Internet. What you do get are those negative ads. You don’t really want negative ads to work but they do. Of they didn’t, they wouldn’t be using them.”

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