Flooding the airwaves: Missouri primary candidates launch TV ads in chaotic election year

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Hate politics? It may be wise to stay away from your TV for the next few weeks.

If you do tune in, it won't be long before you encounter one of countless advertisements paid for and promoted by campaigns for state and federal office. An open U.S. Senate seat, two U.S. House seats and statehouse districts have resulted in high-profile candidates self-promoting and attacking one another, others vying for more name recognition, and outside groups aiming to put their fingers on the scale ahead of the Aug. 2 primary.

Many Missourians will never attend a campaign event or rally, knock on doors or donate to a candidate. For them, the glut of advertisements filling nearly every commercial break is the most direct way they'll experience one of the most chaotic primary campaign seasons in recent history.

Analysis by the News-Leader of documents filed with local TV stations and the advertisements themselves, as well as the perspective of a local political scientist, offer a look at how the southwest corner of the Show-Me State is experiencing the deluge of messaging, how politicians are portraying themselves and their opponents, and how much money is flowing in.

Missourians are being flooded with TV advertisements from candidates running in primary elections across the state. They offer a look at how candidates are marketing themselves, attacking their opponents, and spending money during a crowded campaign season.
Missourians are being flooded with TV advertisements from candidates running in primary elections across the state. They offer a look at how candidates are marketing themselves, attacking their opponents, and spending money during a crowded campaign season.

The race to succeed U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt in Washington will top the ballot and is also garnering top attention, as big Republican names try to push to the front of the pack of a crowded field. It's drawing both national headlines and a fresh wave of outside spending.

A new super PAC backed by prominent Republican officials and donors, named Show Me Values, will air over $1 million worth of ads through the end of June specifically targeting former Gov. Eric Greitens, POLITICO reported Thursday. Its ads focus on his previous and current scandals and are expected to maintain a presence in the Springfield, St. Louis and Kansas City media markets through the end of the primary. They began airing on KY3 in Springfield and elsewhere on Friday.

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The creation of the PAC, which is being overseen by strategist and former Trump White House official Johnny DeStefano, comes just days after Greitens released a campaign video depicting him hunting RINOs, or "Republicans in name only," holding a shotgun and surrounded by a tactical military team. Republicans nationally fear a Greitens win in the primary could make the red-leaning seat competitive for a Democratic victory.

It also represents a raising of the financial stakes in the race from outside spending, though it is not the first group to take to the screen and weigh in on the Senate race.

Save Missouri Values, a PAC supporting Attorney General Eric Schmitt, has pushed two ads, both focused on immigration. One touts Schmitt as "taking the battle" against the Biden administration "all the way to the Supreme Court," and another attacks U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler, calling her "wrong on illegal immigration" and "wrong for Missouri."

Hartzler has come out with a new ad of her own, with her endorsement from U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley front and center. He walks by portraits of the other candidates as they fade to black and white before arriving at Hartzler's.

"There's a lot of Republicans running for the Senate," Hawley says. "I know all of them. I've decided to support Vicky Hartzler."

Senate President Dave Schatz, meanwhile, is touting himself as a "Reagan Republican" in his ad, driving around equipment to dig trenches and urging voters to ignore back-and-forth rhetoric and elect someone "to fix problems, not fix blame."

The race to replace Blunt is one of several contested Republican primaries this fall throughout Missouri. Advertising during such primaries, Drury University political science professor Dan Ponder said, is designed to raise voters' recognition of a candidate's name and to get them to stand out in a field where in broad strokes, policy positions are extremely similar.

"You have to find a way to get some daylight between you and somebody else, a reason for somebody to focus on you," Ponder said.

In southwest Missouri's U.S. House race, two state senators (one current, one former) are taking different tacks in their TV spots.

Former Sen. Jay Wasson has released three different ads, two of which reference what he calls his "contract with the Ozarks." He aims to tie aspects of his personal life to policy issues: analogizing gates and fences on a farm to stricter immigration policy, and a previous job working at a gas station to high oil prices and inflation.

"As a builder, I know every successful project needs a good plan," Wasson says in one of the ads.

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Sen. Eric Burlison, meanwhile, is putting his family front and center in his first TV spot.

"My dad, Eric Burlison, is a superhero," one of his daughters says.

"Of nerds," the other interjects.

The ad touts his endorsements from Missouri Right to Life, an anti-abortion group, as well as the National Rifle Association, and his being ranked the "number one conservative in the Missouri legislature." His campaign has spent around $15,000 to run 56 30-second spots across KY3 and KOLR10 this week, with the ads targeted toward adults over 55 years old.

The ad's angle is a familiar one early in primaries, Ponder said, introducing the candidate to voters who may not know them as a familiar and relatable figure.

"They sort of say okay, I'm a conservative, I'm a family man," Ponder said. "And I'll fight for you, I'll reflect your values."

State Senate candidate Brian Gelner, a beverage company executive, offers a similar perspective in his ad — calling for "conservative commonsense leadership" and pointing out that "he's not a politician," a subtle jab toward his opponent Rep. Curtis Trent.

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Most advertising up until the final weeks of the primary will likely be relatively tame, Ponder said, and more harsh attacks are usually reserved for the higher-attention statewide races. But after the last local election in Springfield drummed up outside attack ads, he said he wasn't ruling anything out.

"Once upon a time, even a decade ago, maybe less, it'd be difficult to say you'd see much negative campaigning in the primaries at the statehouse level," Ponder said. "But all you have to do is look at city council last year, the school board this year, negative campaigning was taken a bit further."

Galen Bacharier covers Missouri politics & government for the News-Leader. Contact him at gbacharier@news-leader.com, (573) 219-7440 or on Twitter @galenbacharier.

This article originally appeared on Springfield News-Leader: Missouri candidates spend big money on TV ads during primary season