WASHINGTON — On New Year’s Eve, station managers at WMUR-TV in Manchester, N.H., received a request from a media buyer in northern Virginia: Americans for Prosperity, a nonprofit backed by the billionaires David and Charles Koch, wanted to buy some ads.
Lots of ads.
During the next week, nearly $120,000 worth of ads aired during commercial breaks of shows like “Ellen,” “The Bachelor,” and “Modern Family.”
The hard-hitting, 30-second spots were among the first in a wave to attack Senator Jeanne Shaheen, helping lay the groundwork for former Massachusetts senator Scott Brown to challenge the Democratic incumbent.
“Tell Senator Shaheen it’s time to be honest,” the ad said. “ObamaCare doesn’t work.”
Shaheen’s allies have fought back but, in a sign of potential trouble for the Democrat and her supporters, they have been overwhelmed by the opposition’s barrage, outspent by a margin of more than 4-to-1. The gap is already becoming a grave concern among state Democrats who fear that national party leaders are not making the race a priority.
“Let me be clear: I am worried. . . . Democrats are in for a couple months of real worry and anxiety,” said Peter Burling, a Democratic National Committee member from New Hampshire and a former state senator. “Most of us can’t even think in terms of the amount of money they have to dispose. Then at some point we will figure out, ‘OK. We’ve just got to bear down. Dig deeper. Do more.’ ”
Lou D’Allesandro, a state senator and a veteran Democratic operative, said Brown has “changed the whole game plan,” and he has been urging state and national Democrats to give the race “the full-court press.”
“There will be a fortune spent here. And you’ve got to raise it to combat that,” D’Allesandro said.
The spending levels from out-of-state Republican groups have already surpassed what Mitt Romney’s campaign spent on ads during the entire 2012 New Hampshire primary. Close observers expect the Senate race to cost at least $20 million, setting records in New Hampshire — a small state of 1.3 million where a crush of outside money could have a big effect.
“I don’t know how they’re going to find places to spend it,” Fergus Cullen, a former chairman of the state Republican Party, said of all the money. “In a small state, in a small market, it starts to become hard to figure out how you spend the money and have an impact with it. You reach a point of diminishing returns.”
The spending gulf illustrates the challenges Democrats face nationwide as wealthy Republican individuals and groups outpace them in the free-wheeling environment opened up by the Supreme Court in 2010 when it did away with restrictions on corporate spending in campaigns.
Although their actual electoral successes were limited in 2012 despite heavy spending, Republican groups are doubling down on their efforts to influence elections in the 2014 Senate midterms.
Americans for Prosperity has been the dominant force thus far, spending more than $30 million since August on ad campaigns that have further weakened vulnerable Democrats in states such as North Carolina, Arkansas, Alaska, and Louisiana.
One of the top outside Democratic groups, Senate Majority PAC, has responded but with only about a tenth of the amount spent by Americans for Prosperity.
Senate Majority PAC this week is launching a $3 million ad campaign suggesting that insurance companies and “out-of-state billionaires’’ like the Koch brothers are backing individual Republican candidates in a quest for profits.
But in another indication that New Hampshire is not yet a top priority for national Democrats, the ad will run in five states — Arkansas, Colorado, Louisiana, Michigan, and North Carolina — but not in the Granite State.
National Democrats say there is plenty of time for them to bolster their presence in New Hampshire, and they point out that Brown only recently signaled he will probably get into the race — and after months of flirtation.
“If the race remains competitive, we will be involved in it and do everything we can to make sure Shaheen wins,” said Ty Matsdorf, campaign director for Senate Majority PAC.
Before facing Shaheen, Brown would have to win the GOP primary, against candidates that currently include Bob Smith, a former US senator; Jim Rubens, a former state senator; and conservative activist Karen Testerman.
The flood of spending also helps explain why Brown has so far rejected the so-called People’s Pledge, an effort that he helped pioneer to keep outside groups from influencing campaigns.
During his 2012 Senate campaign in Massachusetts against Elizabeth Warren, both candidates agreed to ask outside groups not to spend money on the race. If they did, the candidate who benefited from the ads would have to donate money to charity.
In that race, Brown began with a major fund-raising advantage over Warren, a first-time candidate. It made strategic sense to try to prevent Warren from reaping support from groups across the country. This time around, Brown is in an underdog role, reaping the rewards of the outside spending blitz, and has little incentive to cut it off.
Shaheen is trying to use Brown’s reluctance to shun outside help against him.
“I’ve asked Scott Brown to sign the same pledge — his pledge — in this year’s US Senate campaign in New Hampshire,” Shaheen wrote last week in the Conway Daily Sun. “Brown is so far refusing to sign.”
Brown called the request “hypocritical,” pointing to a West Coast fund-raising swing by Shaheen, and told reporters that the “horse has kind of left the barn.”
“Before I even thought of becoming a candidate, Jeanne Shaheen’s allies in Washington were running negative ads against me for months,” Brown said in a statement.
But during the past four months, Republican groups have spent $1.5 million on ads targeting Shaheen, while Democratic groups have spent $350,000 targeting Brown. Most of the spending has taken place on WMUR-TV, the dominant station in New Hampshire, according to a Globe analysis of data regularly submitted by television stations.
Brown supporters are now starting to take out broadcast ads in the Boston media market, which Shaheen supporters have yet to do. As part of a $600,000 campaign, Crossroads GPS purchased nearly $140,000 in ads running on WCVB-TV and Fox 25. The 30-second spots are running during morning and nightly newscasts, as well as during commercial breaks on “American Idol,” which are expensive ad buys.
Americans for Prosperity has run four different ads this year in New Hampshire, at a cost of $1.8 million. About $770,000 of that spending targeted Shaheen, with the rest aimed at Representatives Carol Shea Porter and Ann Kuster, both Democrats who support President Obama’s health care law.
All of the ads have been aimed at stoking anger over the health care law, which has become Brown’s signature issue as he tours the state and explores a bid for the Senate.
Senate Majority PAC and another Democratic-leaning group, the League of Conservation Voters, are taking a wait-and-see approach to the New Hampshire race.
Another major outside group, American Bridge, has sent trackers with video cameras to New Hampshire to attend — and record — all of Brown’s public events. But the group specializes in opposition research, not ad-buying.
One possible source for an influx of outside Democratic dollars is billionaire Tom Steyer, a former hedge fund executive from California who has formed a political organization called NextGen Climate Action that will spend $100 million during the midterm elections.