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Gubernatorial candidates shell out millions in cash for ads

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AUSTIN, Texas — Gov. Greg Abbott is going head-to-head with his democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke. New numbers show that Texas is running more TV ads than any other state when comparing gubernatorial races. In a two-week period in September, ads for the governor’s race ran more than 14,000 times. Almost 3,000 more pro-GOP ads ran than pro-Dem ads.

“As long as O’Rourke stays within, say 20 or 30% of what Abbott’s doing, he’s fine,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University. “Beto is not going to get drowned out by Abbott, having maybe three or four thousand more ads than him in any reporting cycle. That pretty much just washes out. And really, most of the effects of these ads wash out. It’s kind of like an arms race: One side does it, the other side matches it, and they cancel each other out. And as a result, the overall impact of television on turnout and vote decisions is relatively modest, as long as the campaigns are relatively equally matched, which is what we have in Texas this cycle.”

Experts suggest the campaigns are spending money simply because they have so much. At the same time, they’re trying to reach voters across the entire state. That means they have to shell out cash for ads in two top-10 markets, Dallas and Houston, in other mid-size media markets, and in rural areas. That’ll add up.

“Texas is it is a red state that’s threatened to go blue for a quarter century,” said Paul Brace, another political science professor at Rice University. “And so I think for Democrats, it’s tantalizing to think that this is the year and if we just spend some money, it’ll happen. For Republicans, it’s like the tide is coming. But if we spend, we can hold off the tide. And so I think that escalates spending on both sides.”

Brace said Gov. Abbott might be spending so much money because the margins are a little too close for comfort, and he wants to win big. But the benefits of both candidates running ads is a less effective than other races because Gov. Abbott and O’Rourke have name recognition. 

“Everybody knows who Abbott is. He’s been governor for a long time. And so the expected return from TV advertisements isn’t going to be very good, because people already know him,” Brace said. “Beto is kind of like an incumbent in the sense that he’s very well known. He’s probably the most famous challenger you could come up with in the state of Texas.”

The candidates who really need TV time are down-ballot Democrats like Rochelle Garza, who’s running for attorney general against incumbent Republican Ken Paxton, and Mike Collier, who’s running for lieutenant governor against incumbent Republican Dan Patrick. According to the exclusive Spectrum News-Siena College poll, most Texans don’t know who they are. But those candidates don’t have enough money to buy ads like Gov. Abbott and O’Rourke can. They simply can’t compete with their Republican challengers.

Brace said Independent voters aren’t even paying much attention yet, and young voters are likely being reached online. The candidates are saturating the TV market with ads to reach the most reliable voters who still tune in: Older Texans.

“They watch the evening news. They watch sporting events, and many of them watch Jeopardy and other sorts of game shows and Fox News and things that allow them to be reached via television advertising,” Jones said.

Many of the TV ads are negative. That’s intentional.

“If you can make your opposition look even worse for your voters, then they’re likely to turn out for you even if they’re not happy with the job you’re doing,” said Jennifer Mercieca, a professor at Texas A&M University. 

Not all the ads are paid for and approved by the candidates. Some are paid for by third-party groups that can keep their identity secret. One group that’s been spending an enormous amount of money on the governor’s campaign is Coulda Been Worse LLC.

“They’re actually sometimes happy to have an outside group attack their opponent because it gives them a little bit of plausible deniability to say, ‘Hey, we’re not at all linked to that super PAC. So if you don’t like what they’re saying, don’t blame us, blame them,’” Jones said.

Jones guesses this campaign will be record-breaking. He estimates more than $200 million will be spent on the governor’s race by Election Day.

Follow Charlotte Scott on Facebook and Twitter.

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