Early start to TV ads war in midterm elections

Using health overhaul as a cudgel, GOP takes aim at swing states

Ads such as this one by Americans for Prosperity appear to be having an impact in undermining support for Senator Kay Hagan, whose disapproval ratings have soared.
Ads such as this one by Americans for Prosperity appear to be having an impact in undermining support for Senator Kay Hagan, whose disapproval ratings have soared.

WASHINGTON — The barrage of TV advertisements sponsored by a well-funded conservative group features women — in a kitchen over coffee, at work with a laptop, or somberly speaking directly to the camera. Each ad drives home a variation on a theme: “Obamacare doesn’t work.’’

The beginning of the 2014 midterm election season and the launch of the most controversial aspects of the Affordable Care Act coincide on the political calendar, and several states are already awash in spending by outside groups.

Republicans are trying to use the controversy over the botched launch of President Obama’s health care law to lay the groundwork early and attempt to sway crucial female voters away from incumbent Senate Democrats in key states.


Women make the vast majority of health care decisions in families, giving Republicans a potential opening to exploit among a pivotal group of voters.

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“We are prioritizing [women] for the messaging,” said Tim Phillips, the president of Americans for Prosperity, which has been behind a multimillion dollar campaign against the health care law. “They are the key decision-makers and the key influencers on health care. Literally they’re involved at three generation levels: with their parents, with themselves, and with their children.”

No other state in recent weeks has been inundated with ads like North Carolina, home of a potentially vulnerable Democratic senator, Kay Hagan. The activity previews the debate that will unfold throughout the country in the coming year.

Broadcast ads portraying the Affordable Care Act in negative terms have accounted for $711,000 spent this year in Charlotte, the most in any metro market in the country, according to a recent analysis by Kantar Media/CMAG. Nearly $600,000 has been spent on such advertising in Raleigh-Durham, the fourth-highest in the country.

Democrats are counterpunching with spots of their own, emphasizing positive aspects of the Affordable Care Act.


The ads come amid a vigorous fight for control of the Senate, with Republicans attempting to pick off six seats and reclaim the majority. In addition to North Carolina, they have been focused on knocking off Democratic incumbents in Alaska, Arkansas, and Louisiana. Obama lost all of those states in 2012, and they are also areas with high numbers of residents without insurance.

Nearly one-fourth of the residents in each North Carolina media market are uninsured, for example. That sets the stage for a heated battle for public opinion in the state’s major population centers.

The ads running there — which are not all truthful — attempt to stoke fears that the law will force people off of their current plans, require them to pay more, or prevent them from seeing their current doctors.

But the ads appear to be having an impact. Hagan’s disapproval ratings have soared and some polls now show her essentially tied with her potential Republican opponents after she led by double digits a few months ago.

Hagan was carried into office in 2008 on the back of support for President Obama, defeating Republican incumbent Elizabeth Dole. Now Democrats are trying to make sure she’s not washed out of office based on opposition to his chief domestic priority.


Hagan voted for the health care law in 2010, and has largely defended her vote. But she is attempting to distance herself from some of the most serious political dangers by calling for an investigation into the botched rollout of the law. She has also cosponsored a bill allowing people to keep their current insurance plans, even the substandard ones that insurance companies have been eliminating.

‘Republicans in general know they have a large problem with women. They’re trying to address that.’

Ty Matsdorf, campaign director for Senate Majority PAC, a Democratic group 

Democrats have been much better at winning women’s votes in recent elections, but Republicans are now trying to capitalize on their sour feelings about the health care law. Women make 80 percent of the health care decisions for their families, according to US Department of Labor statistics.

A recent Kaiser poll showed that there has been a sharply negative turn among women’s attitudes toward the health care law. They had previously been evenly divided on it, but in November 48 percent said they had an unfavorable view, while 32 percent had a favorable view. The gap between favorable and unfavorable was up 15 points over the previous month.

Both Democrats and Republicans have taken out large numbers of ads on shows that women typically watch more than men. On WSOC-TV, the ABC affiliate in Charlotte, the ads were running this month on “The View,” “Dr. Phil,” and “Live with Kelly and Michael.” On WRAL-TV, the CBS affiliate in Raleigh, the ads were running during shows such as “The Young and the Restless.”

“The Republicans in 2012 did awfully among women, not only nationally but in Senate races,” said Robert Blendon, a professor at Harvard who studies polling on health care. “But this is an issue that appears, particularly in the more conservative states, to resonate with women. They’re worried about the costs and the changes in this law.”

The ads are different from the usual attack ads, tailored for a female audience that is turned off by the typical harsh attacks. While the underlying messages are still negative, they are delivered in sympathetic tones, including one where a middle-aged woman talks directly to the camera for a full 30-second spot.

“If you go back and look at some of the ads that aired in 2012, they were very repetitive, very similar, and very hard hitting,” said Elizabeth Wilner, vice president of Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group. “These ads are different. They clearly realized they needed to do their messaging different. . . . And when it comes to health care, the women in the household tend to make those decisions.”

In North Carolina, Americans for Prosperity began running an ad in late October that begins by showing women in business meetings, presentations, and sitting in front of a laptop as a narrator talks about women driving the economy.

“They balance the family checkbook. They start businesses, create jobs,” the narrator says, before the color images fade to black and white. “But Kay Hagan doesn’t get it. Instead of listening to North Carolina, Hagan continues to push for Obamacare.”

The ad also says Hagan supported “waivers for friends of Obama” as well as “special treatment for Congress and their staffs,” claims rated as false by the nonpartisan fact-checking site Politifact.

A Democratic group, the Senate Majority PAC, has poured about $1.5 million into North Carolina to respond to the health care ads that target Hagan.

In that ad, several people speak about the benefits of the health care law, including the provision that prevents insurance companies from denying health care coverage to those with preexisting conditions.

“Republicans in general know they have a large problem with women. They’re trying to address that,” said Ty Matsdorf, campaign director for Senate Majority PAC. “The problem is, candidates in the Republican primary are advocating these polices that are very, very dangerous — and very unappealing to women voters, moderate voters.”

Driven partly by an influx of new residents, North Carolina has become much more of a swing state, and Democrats have tried to make it a beachhead in the South. Obama narrowly won in 2008, becoming the first Democratic presidential candidate to win since Jimmy Carter, but then narrowly lost in 2012.

With financial backing from several conservative businessmen, Republicans in 2010 also won control of both chambers in the Legislature for the first time since 1870. In 2012, Pat McCrory, a Republican mayor of Charlotte, was elected governor.

And now, several Republicans are vying to challenge Hagan.

“Clearly Republicans have been at a disadvantage in appealing to women, particularly younger professional women,” said Ferrel Guillory, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “The struggle, at least in terms of women, will be for the suburban, modern, the kind of millennial’s, end-of-the-baby-boom generation.”

Matt Viser can be reached at matt.viser@globe.com.