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Political spots net $2.3M for Pittsburgh TV stations

| Friday, Sept. 14, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

Candidates in four contentious political races bought more than $2.3 million worth of airtime on Pittsburgh's network television stations in the run-up to the Nov. 6 general election, records from the stations show.

The congressional and Senate campaigns are contending with ads from political action committees and trying to protect themselves from being squeezed out of prime TV time slots late in the campaign season when the presidential race heats up, analysts say.

Ad spending matches last year's and trails 2010 levels, when voters had competitive Senate, gubernatorial and congressional races, said John Brabender, a Republican political strategist. The spending could easily eclipse 2010 if Pennsylvania becomes a presidential battleground, he said.

“It will produce a ton of third-party spending in Pennsylvania,” he said. “Overnight, (TV stations) could sell out their inventory if this state truly becomes a battleground. PA is one of those states that's on the bubble right now.”

That's why campaigns such as U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy's, for which Brabender is consulting, reserved airtime through Election Day.

“It was a precaution,” he said.

Advertising picked up in a key congressional race this week when U.S. Rep. Mark Critz's campaign announced its first TV spot.

Political action committees have poured more than $475,000 into the race between the Johnstown Democrat and his Republican challenger, Keith Rothfus of Sewickley.Rothfus purchased or reserved $670,000 worth of advertising time through the election. Critz bought about $250,000 from mid-September through early October, according to online figures that the Federal Communications Commission requires to be reported. The Critz campaign says it has reserved about $800,000 worth of ad time.

Rothfus got off to an early start and began running ads to reintroduce himself to voters in late August.

He narrowly lost in 2010 to U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire, D-McCandless.

“We knew we had to get Keith out to the voters as soon as possible, so they knew who Keith really was and knew what his ideas are before the lies and deceit started,” campaign manager Jonathan Raso said.

Critz's first ad announced on Wednesday touts his willingness to buck his own party by opposing over-regulation of the coal and natural gas industries and supporting construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which President Obama blocked in January. Mike Mikus, Critz's campaign manager, said Critz has not been outspent.

“The negative ads for the most part have come from Rothfus. We back up everything we put in our ads,” Mikus said.

Charlie Gerow, a Harrisburg-based Republican consultant, said Rothfus will have to maintain his ad spending through November to be effective.

“Generally when candidates start, they don't go dark,” Gerow said. “That kind of sustained message delivery is what wins campaigns.”

Voters are starting to notice the higher volume.

“What I can't stand is how they warp the information that's available out there,” said Joseph Stechly, 65, of Ellsworth in Washington County.

The retired teacher said the 30-second spots play a role in helping him to decide how to vote, even if they saturate prime-time television as November approaches.

“It's like football season. You know you only have 16 days, and there's only a handful of days left before the big election,” he said.

Sen. Bob Casey, D-Scranton, and Republican challenger Tom Smith of Armstrong County are neck and neck in booking ads in Pittsburgh's TV market. Casey spent more than $427,000 here to Smith's $488,000. Statewide, Smith's campaign is spending $2 million on ads during the general election, campaign manager Jim Conroy said.

Casey's campaign declined to provide a statewide figure.

“We've been matching ad buys with them,” Conroy said. “We'd like to outspend them.”

Nick Bonesso, a political and government affairs consultant in Pittsburgh, said that would be wise if Smith has any hope of overcoming low name recognition.

“For a challenger like Smith going up a against a golden name like Casey, I would think that he would have to quadruple his spending to have a chance,” Bonesso said.

In another high-profile congressional race, Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, has purchased or reserved more than $470,000 in air time, establishing a larger TV presence over Democratic challenger Larry Maggi of Buffalo Township in Washington County, who has about $41,000 in airtime so far, records show. Maggi's campaign said it reserved $430,000 worth of ads to start airing Oct. 9.

In the state Senate race between Republican D. Raja and state Rep. Matt Smith, both of Mt. Lebanon, Raja has spent $103,000 to buy airtime on network stations. Smith is airing ads only on cable TV in the state's 37th Senate District in Allegheny and Washington counties. Smith's campaign declined to reveal how much it has spent.

Jeremy Boren is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7935 or

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