This summer, six interns from The Anniston Star collected and analyzed 1,027 pages of documents from the public advertising files maintained by five Birmingham broadcast TV stations. The files show which candidates bought television ads in the Birmingham market in the 2012 primary.
Those documents show just how much influence super PACs hold over the airwaves when it comes to political advertising. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney spent $70,555 in the Birmingham market during the primary, while his super PAC ally, Restore Our Future, spent $253,607. With $113,200 in the Birmingham market, Newt Gingrich outspent his super PAC, Winning Our Future, which forked over $35,160.
Rick Santorum’s campaign didn’t spend a dime in Birmingham in the period covered by the documents, but his super PAC, the Red, White and Blue Fund, spent $71,000.
If the Birmingham market is any indication, super PACs so far have wielded far less influence in Alabama’s statewide races. None of the candidates for statewide office seemed to have super PACs spending for them.
There was, however, one notable super PAC campaign against an Alabama candidate — one that shows just how much influence a single outsider can have in Alabama’s elections.
The Campaign for Primary Accountability spent $54,390 on ads aimed at defeating U.S. Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Vestavia Hills, in his bid for the GOP nomination for another term in Congress. That’s more money on Birmingham TV advertising than was spent by Bachus’ two primary opponents combined. State Sen. Scott Beason, R-Gardendale, spent just $3,905 on ads in the same market, and opponent David Standridge spent $6,398.
Campaign for Primary Accountability was founded by Texas construction magnate Leo Linbeck III, a man with no apparent connections to Alabama politics. What he does have is millions of dollars and a sizable dislike of long-term incumbents. According its website, the super PAC’s goal is to “level the playing field” in primary elections — giving challengers a chance against sitting elected officials who start the race with deep pockets.
“We don’t care about ideology,” said Curtis Ellis, spokesman for the group. “What we all agree on is we need competitive elections.”
If there is another political ideology behind the group, it hasn’t shown up yet. According to its website, the group set its sights on 11 long-term incumbents this year — six Democrats and five Republicans. Among the Republicans on the super PAC’s list of targeted candidates is Rep. Jo Bonner, R-Mobile, yet there’s no clear indication of anti-Bonner ads in the super PAC’s Birmingham ad purchases.
Should an out-of-state person be able to wield so much influence in Alabama politics? Ellis counters by saying that many of Bachus’ supporters are out-of-state bankers.
According to Federal Elections Commission records, bankers do figure heavily among Bachus’ individual donors, and roughly half of the congressman’s individual donors are from states other than Alabama.
Bachus survived the primary challenge and will face Democrat Penny Bailey in November. Repeated attempts to reach Bachus for this story were unsuccessful.
More To Come?
The sheer volume of documents involved is one reason ProPublica, the nonprofit journalism group, asked the public to help it with collecting and scanning television stations’ public advertising files. With 1,000-plus pages of records generated in Birmingham during the primaries alone, the public files offer a detailed day-by-day account of the strategic decisions made by each campaign.
There could be stories in those documents that The Star hasn’t noticed. The newspaper is inviting its readers to take a look at the files themselves at www.annistonstar.com/special_politicalad. Readers can send any insights, ideas or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.