Debt Crisis: AARP, Karl Rove Group, Others Spent Millions on Political Ads

Interest groups dropped millions on political ads trying to influence the debate. By Laura Colarusso.

It turns out cutting the national debt was a boon for at least one industry: the political ad-making business.

As lawmakers fought over how many trillions should be slashed from the federal budget in exchange for raising the debt ceiling, special interests were pouring tens of millions of their own dollars into large-scale ad buys in an attempt to influence the debate. The ads also helped set the stage for a broader discussion on the role and size of government that will carry into the 2012 presidential election.

Over the last three months, groups such as AARP, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and American Crossroads—a nonprofit political organization founded by Republican strategist Karl Rove—blanketed the airwaves, concentrating their efforts on Florida, Ohio, and other key swing states.

Political TV ads have been a force since they first appeared in 1952, and this year, the debt-ceiling commercials proliferated as politicians wrangled over deep reductions to such previously untouchable programs as Medicare and Social Security.

More than swaying opinions, these ads helped push an otherwise arcane and routine budget maneuver to the top of the agenda—reinforcing the sense that a national crisis was at hand.

“I don’t think that the average American voter, especially a few months ago, was really focused on the debt,” said Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “Advertising does help set the narrative.”

For conservative groups, the simple narrative was government is too big and President Obama is to blame. For Democrats and unions, the message was that Republicans wanted to balance the budget on the backs of average Americans while letting the rich and corporations off the hook.

In what’s perhaps the largest ad buy of the debt-ceiling debate, American Crossroads has spent roughly $15 million on ads since the third week of June. About 90 percent of that money has gone toward television spots, which have run nationally and targeted local politicians. The ads summoned Americans to take away President Obama’s “blank check,” a line Republicans used in Congress to describe Washington’s runaway spending.

Jonathan Collegio, a spokesman for the group, said American Crossroads is trying to highlight the problems with the economy and how they’re tied to the debt ceiling.

Progressive groups quickly returned fire, though they haven’t spent nearly as much. Priorities USA, a super-PAC run by two former Obama White House aides, launched a $750,000 campaign on June 29 to respond to American Crossroads and criticize Republicans for supporting oil subsidies while working to cut the social safety net.

The SEIU along with three other unions—Americans United for Change, National Education Association, and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees—produced a series of ads targeting 11 House Republicans, including Majority Leader Eric Cantor, for “holding the interests of ordinary Americans hostage.”

The ads are, in many ways, just a preview of the battle lines for the 2012 elections. The major fight will be over President Obama’s handling of the economy and the Republicans’ drive to lower the debt by cutting benefits, and these third-party groups are staking out ground and testing their messaging now.

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Take, for example, Ending Spending, an organization dedicated to shrinking the government. The group spent about a half million dollars on two television commercials aimed at independents in Ohio and Virginia. Their goal, said the group’s president, Brian Baker, was to get voters talking about how “too much debt hampers economic growth” in the hopes that the message sticks through 2012 and beyond.

Other conservative groups weighed in on the debate with hefty ad buys. Concerned Women for America, a nonprofit organization dedicated to applying Biblical principles to public policy, spent $1.2 million on an ad campaign called “Spenditol,” a spoof of prescription-drug advertisements that encouraged constituents to “Call the White House and Congress … Tell them: Stop spending it all.”

The American Grassroots Coalition, a Tea Party group based in Marietta, debuted its first television and radio ads, urging lawmakers not to raise the debt ceiling at all. The AGC didn’t return emails seeking comment.

The AARP also waded into the debt-ceiling issue when it saw the key benefits—Medicare and Social Security—for its constituency being threatened. The group spent what a spokesman would only describe as “millions of dollars” on three ads airing in 25 states including Wisconsin, Tennessee, Utah, Illinois, and Kentucky. The 30-second spots slam lawmakers who call for trimming entitlement spending instead of pet projects that bring money to their districts.

And the AARP didn’t pull any punches. “If Congress really wants to balance the budget, they can stop spending our money on things like a cotton institute in Brazil, poetry at zoos, treadmills for shrimp,” one ad intones. “But instead of cutting waste or closing tax loopholes, next month Congress could make a deal that cuts Medicare [and] even Social Security. I guess it’s easier to cut the benefits we earned instead of pickle technology.”