Dems mount $10M ad campaign to sell landmark law — and skirt a November wipeout

Last updated on August 18, 2022

Democrats passed their landmark legislation in time for the midterms. Now they need to sell it to voters — and the first phase of that effort is taking shape.

In plans shared first with POLITICO, a trio of Democratic groups — Climate Power, the League of Conservation Voters and Future Forward USA Action, a nonprofit backed by several major Democratic donors — is dropping $10 million on a national TV ad campaign to define the legislation in the minds of voters. It’s the largest paid ad effort to bolster the legislation so far, as an array of Democratic groups and candidates kick off a 90-day sprint to promote the package and defy a brutal electoral environment for the party.

“The magnitude, the scope and the importance of what Congress and Biden just did for climate change is transformational … and it is essential that people understand the magnitude of what just happened,” said Pete Maysmith, senior vice president of campaigns at the League of Conservation Voters. He predicted that Republicans would try to mislead voters about the bill, and “we can’t sit around and wait for that to happen. We need to aggressively tell this story.”

It’s a task the party has been particularly bad at in the past — most notably in 2010 after the passage of Obamacare — and there’s no guarantee this time will be different.

“There was no campaign to win the win” after passage of the Affordable Care Act, said Lori Lodes, executive director of Climate Power, “whereas the other side spent $450 million to define it as a socialist takeover.” That cycle, Democrats lost 63 House seats and six Senate seats.

After President Joe Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act into law on Tuesday, White House cabinet officials fanned out across the country to stump for it, hosting events in California, Iowa, New Jersey, Arizona, Mississippi and Nevada on Thursday and Friday. Vulnerable senators are talking it up on the campaign trail, while Democratic TV admakers are rushing to cut ads.

“I know frontline members have already shot spots explaining their vote, touting what’s in the bill and basically saying — promises made, promises kept on lowering prescription drug costs and health care costs,” said Ian Russell, a Democratic admaker and former political director at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “You’ll see those ads proliferate for frontline Democrats.”

For it to stick in voters’ minds, Russell said, “you have to put money behind it,” he continued. “You have to sell it through ads.”

There’s more ad spending on the horizon, both from candidates and outside groups, a half-dozen Democratic strategists said. Building Back Together, a group led by former Biden campaign officials to support the president’s policies, will be rolling out a more than $1 million ad buy, particularly targeting voters of color, according to a spokesperson for the group.

The Democratic National Committee is also planning to launch its own TV and digital ad campaign boosting the new law, according to a committee official.

“This [spending] reinforces what Democrats in the House and the Senate are already talking about,” said JB Poersch, president of Senate Majority PAC, the flagship Senate Democratic super PAC. Among the provisions he said would resonate with voters: lowering drug costs by allowing Medicare to negotiate prices, instituting an insulin spending cap for Medicare recipients and shoring up the Affordable Care Act. “It helps to echo that relief is on the way.”

Senate Majority PAC cut its own ad this week in Nevada that boosted Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) for efforts to “cap insulin costs at $35,” while her Republican opponent, Adam Laxalt, “called a plan to cut insulin costs ‘reckless.’” The law does cap insulin prices for Medicare recipients, but that provision does not extend to those with private insurance, a piece of the bill that was knocked out by Republican opposition.

The sales pitch is also coming from the candidates themselves, who can “in debates, on the stump, through TV ads, point to concrete things they’ve done,” said Ben Wikler, the chairman of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin. The legislation is “the proof point that speaks to the overall case that we’re making to voters right now,” he said.

Even as Democrats lean into their legislative accomplishments, the fundamentals of the election are bleak. Biden’s approval ratings are stuck in the low-40s and inflation, though ticking down slightly, remains high. And breaking through to voters is a tough task, evidenced by recent polling that found only a quarter of voters were aware that Democrats passed a $550 billion infrastructure package last year.

“For independent voters, until they see changes in how much money is leaving their pocket every month, this is going to fall largely on deaf ears,” said Robert Blizzard, a Republican pollster who works on a range of congressional races across the country. “This is merely a play to gin up support among their base.”

But the legislation has given the party a concrete legislative achievement to tout. One veteran of the Obamacare sales job debacle 12 years ago said that Democrats’ challenge is clear this time around.

“The key lesson here is the journey to fight for the success of a law doesn’t end with bill passage, but that kicks off a whole new phase where communications are equally as important,” said Ben LaBolt, a Democratic strategist. “It’s important to not only do that in electoral advertising, which happens in a specific period of weeks every two years, but you have to show up in voters’ feeds, on their connected streaming TVs, on cable TV, all on a repeated basis explaining what the law does.”

The ads airing as a part of the $10 million buy will appear on cable stations and streaming platforms. They’ll also run on two messaging tracks, leaning on the issues that are polling particularly well among voters, according to public polling. The first batch focus on how “Joe Biden and Democrats in Congress just passed a law that lowers costs for health care, medicine and energy bills by making corporations pay the taxes they owe, without raising taxes on any of us making under $400,000 a year,” the ad’s narrator says.

The second set of climate-focused ads are targeted to younger voters. They will air on cable channels like Comedy Central, MTV and AdultSwim, all with an eye toward drawing back in under 30 voters who have soured on the Biden administration, after turning out at historic levels for Democrats in 2018 and 2020.

“Storms are stronger, the fires are bigger,” the ad’s narrator says. “We are facing a climate emergency, and after decades of inaction, a president is finally doing something to fight it.“