Congressional campaigns are pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into network and cable advertising buys, targeting their messages to pop up across specific television lineups.
From baseball games to Bravo reality series, campaigns are hoping to win viewers’ attention and votes with messages about gun control, health care, veterans and offshore drilling.
Television audiences may have spotted commercials for Republican Rep. Peter King between back-to-back episodes of “Blue Bloods,” a police drama. Ads for his Democratic challenger, Liuba Grechen Shirley, are playing on “House Hunters International,” a reality show about real estate buying. Commercials for 1st District Democratic candidate Perry Gershon are popping up on “Homicide Hunter,” a true crime series.
It’s no accident.
“A lot of this is gut reaction,” said King, 74, of Seaford, a 25-year incumbent seeking a 14th term. This year, a number of ads displaying his bipartisan record and advocacy for MS-13 victims are airing during marathons of “Blue Bloods” reruns on the WGN network. The CBS series centers on a family of cops spanning multiple generations.
“Whenever I put something on Facebook about ‘Blue Bloods,’ it gets an over-the-top reaction . . . It gets so many likes,” King said. “They have this really, really loyal following.”
Gershon's campaign has loaded extra dollars and spots on a pair of true crime series, “On the Case With Paula Zahn” and “Homicide Hunter.” Both shows are on the Discovery Network.
The campaign had field-tested the shows and found that the relatively low-profile cable channel “has surprisingly high ratings” in the 1st Congressional District in Suffolk County, according to campaign strategist Tim Minton. “On the Case with Paula Zahn” does well with independent and “surge” voters — those with historically spotty voting records in midterm elections being driven to vote in this election.
Grechen Shirley, a 37-year-old progressive activist and economic development expert from Amityville, has paired her television commercials on networks and shows that have large audiences among women, according to her campaign.
Her ad buy also has included Yankees pre- and postgame spots, and on Freeform’s “31 Nights of Halloween” lineup, featuring classic scary movies. They’re also on Bravo’s “Shahs of Sunset,” a reality show about Iranians living in Beverly Hills; HGTV’s House Hunters International; and evening news shows on MSNBC and CNN.
King said he also has placed ads this year for the first time on HGTV, which focuses on home design, decorating and remodeling. “My wife says people really watch that. I’m really not that much into it,” King said. He said he would have put the ads there even if his opponent were a man. “The women’s vote is in contention this year.”
In suburban races across the country, health care is a dominant theme in campaign ads.
A Kaiser Family Foundation Election Tracking Poll shows health care is the top midterm issue resonating with voters. Thirty percent of voters described health care as their "most important" issue. The other topics were the economy and jobs, at 21 percent; then gun policy and immigration, each at 15 percent; tax cuts and reform, 7 percent; and foreign policy, 6 percent.
Health care and Democrats’ support of Medicare-for-all proposals is a wedge issue, with ads showing two sides of the same coin, said Tobe Berkovitz, an associate professor of advertising at Boston University. “Either the bad Republicans are going to take it away from you, or the bad Democrats are going to turn it into bad, socialized medicine that you can’t afford and can’t get.”
It's playing out in Gershon's challenge to Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), who is seeking a third term. Zeldin, after an introductory biographical ad and another on local accomplishments, attacked Gershon for supporting “Medicare for all.”
The ad hit three of the top issues he hears at the door — taxes, health care and immigration.
“These are issues people care about. It directly impacts their lives,” Zeldin said in an interview. “Medicare for all is very dangerous.”
At the end of the ad, Gershon is videotaped being approached and asked how he’d pay for the expansion. Mid-bite he holds up a cookie. “I can’t talk right now. I’ve got chocolate all over my hands.”
Gershon said the tracker from Zeldin's campaign, who had been wearing four or five Gershon buttons and introduced himself as a strong supporter, caught him mid-bite after a political event. Gershon said he was eating a chocolate chip cookie and it was hot.
Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City) has spotlighted women’s health issues in a 30-second spot called “Zero.” Rice holds up a picture, released by the White House last year, showing an all-male group discussing health care legislation.
“What’s wrong with it? Not one woman,” Rice says in the ad.
Rice said in an interview that her commercial was a “call to arms to women. We have a record number of women running for the House this term, this cycle, and a lot of them are going to win. We’re finally going to be able to address the issue that affects the families across this country when we have more women, more diversity across the table."
Her opponent, Republican attorney Ameer Benno of Bellmore, has no TV ads in the race.
The ads have allowed candidates' personalities, and quirks, to shine through in unusual ways.
One ad features Gershon’s parents. Both are research doctors — his mother developed the chickenpox vaccine — and they complain that their son went into business instead of becoming a doctor.
Gershon said it was a nonpartisan introduction to general election voters that ran after Labor Day.
“I wanted people to see a softer side of me so they’d have some idea of what makes me tick,” Gershon said in an interview.
Grechen Shirley has introduced videos of high production quality on social media. Some feature her two children, ages 2 and 4, and scenes are shot in her home in Amityville, including one called "Personal."
"This was never a strategic move on my point. Running for Congress with a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old is literally the least convenient thing you could do," she said in an interview. "I couldn't take it anymore. . . . It is personal to me. I know what it's like to argue with your insurance company."
Gun control is also a central theme in local ads. One Gershon commercial highlights Zeldin's support for arming teachers and support from gun lobbyists.
In another, Rice takes a tough tack against the NRA. She talks about growing up in a working class, Irish home with nine brothers and sisters, and how hard she worked for good grades. Then, she mentions her "F” rating from the NRA. “When it comes to protecting kids, I don’t give an ‘F’ about the NRA.”
Despite detours toward digital, television is still a relevant medium. Republican incumbents King and Zeldin have each spent more than $1 million on commercials. The Zeldin campaign has spent $1,417,317 so far, while the King campaign says it will have spent $1.1 million through Oct. 31.
“You want to get the people who are likely to vote for you to know who you are and get you out to vote, and at the same time, you want to balance that out" by targeting commercials to voters "who might otherwise not vote for you, and get them out as well,” said Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television & Popular Culture at Syracuse University.
Despite the fragmented media market, “All of these candidates are trying to get as many voters as they possibly can, which means if you’ve got the budget, broadcast TV is still one of the great places to go,” Thompson said.