How Super PACs Will Drive Up Ad Costs for Down-Ticket Candidates

Super PAC ads cost more than candidate ads, but the groups are ready to spend for any possible time.

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Come fall, congressional candidates in swing states may face a rude, post-Citizens United awakening: their television advertising rates will be far higher than they anticipated.

A media analyst at a prominent media buying firm tells Whispers that with the glut of presidential campaign and Super PAC ads, advertisers are looking for a way to bump congressional candidates off the air.

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That's because by law, political candidates pay only the lowest unit rates for advertising. Issue-based advertising, however, which is the category where Super PAC ads fall, do not. Super PACs sometimes pay three times what political candidates do for an ad, and advertisers would much rather run a Super PAC ad than an ad by a down-ticket candidate.

Even if advertisers don't bump candidates altogether this fall, he said, they may choose to raise the lowest unit rate.

Some campaigns in swing states told Whispers they are already preparing for that painful spike in advertising rates.

Patrick Murphy's campaign, running against Florida Republican Rep. Allen West, told Whispers that TV ad rates in Florida have already gone up, and they expect them to go higher.

"What you plan to spend $500 on is suddenly worth $800," said Anthony Kusich, Murphy's campaign manager. "We're the swingiest district in the swingiest state. There will be so many ads... I feel bad for the people watching 'Modern Family.'"

But Kusich said despite ad rate increases, the campaign would do whatever it takes to get Murphy's message to the public.

In Pennsylvania, a debated swing state, incumbent Democratic Congressman Mark Kritz's campaign tells Whispers they bought ads early in order to stave off price increases.

Kritz spokesman Mike Mikus says their media buyer "suggested literally right after the primary that we get moving and get a plan together" for TV ads. And with good reason: the pro-Obama Super PAC Priorities USA and the Karl Rove-founded Super PAC Crossroads GPS have already deluged the airwaves, according to Mikus.

"I've seen prices go up in even past campaigns," he said. "And with this kind of supply and demand that unit rate might go up. We've budgeted for an increase."

In Ohio, an incumbent campaign said that while ad rates might not affect those already in office and flush with funds, it's likely to be particularly hard for non-incumbents.

The media analyst says he believes the coming months will look like a "run on the grocery store."

And if that happens, there may not be any inventory left for congressional candidates. That, or the inventory may just cost much, much more.

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  • Elizabeth Flock is a staff writer for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact her at or follow her on Twitter and Facebook.