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Debt Ceiling Debate Sparks New Round Of TV Ad Wars

Pedestrians stop to view the National Debt Clock in New York this April. The debt ceiling is becoming an election issue, as groups on both sides spend millions on TV ads.
Andrew Harrer
Bloomberg via Getty Images
Pedestrians stop to view the National Debt Clock in New York this April. The debt ceiling is becoming an election issue, as groups on both sides spend millions on TV ads.

The debate over raising the debt ceiling has largely taken place in the halls of Congress and the White House briefing room. But there is another front in the battle — a war on the air. Advocacy groups from each side of the issue are spending millions on commercials.

The ads are evidence of the latest trend in political advertising, according to Ken Goldstein, president the Virginia-based consulting group CMAG, which tracks political ads. "I think we used to be in a world where election ads were aired during an election time, and lobbying or issue ads were aired during non-election time," he says. "I think those lines have completely blurred."

Probably the biggest debt-ceiling ad buy, $20 million, is part of a summer campaign by the group Crossroads GPS, founded by Karl Rove, to help Republican congressional candidates. Crossroads is targeting Democrats in swing states, and it's also running a national ad, called "Wake Up," in which a woman in a nightgown is seen getting up in the middle of the night.


"Sometimes it's hard to sleep. I'm worried, I guess, about our jobs, our home — how everything costs more, even Mom's health care," the woman says. "How will we ever retire?"

Steven Law, president of Crossroads GPS, says that in this ad, the group is trying to provide some context. "Most people don't think every day about the debt limit," he says. "In fact, in our focus groups, we found that very, very few people were even aware of the idea of the debt limit.

"So we wanted to provide some context," he continues. "How did we get here? How did the spending that has happened over the last several years trigger this? And what are the policy choices that people need to start to address to fix it?"

The left-leaning meanwhile is going after what it believes are vulnerable Republicans, like freshman Rep. Lou Barletta of Pennsylvania.

"Rep. Barletta won't budge," the ad says. "It seems like he'd rather see our families fail, our economy fail, and our entire country fail than simply stand up to the GOP's greedy friends."

Advertisement has paid for ads in three congressional districts, including Barletta's — a buy of some $35,000. It's also cut ads running on the Web aimed at other Republicans.

Justin Ruben, the group's executive director, says the campaign is part of a grass-roots effort. "Our theory is basically that if the most vulnerable Republicans start getting flooded with pressure from their constituents, that they may put enough pressure on their leadership that is kind of leading the country over a cliff right now, to get them to back down," he says.

Other Republicans are being targeted by conservatives. The Club for Growth has taken out ads aimed at some in the GOP, like Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar, a six-term veteran, warning him not to vote for a debt-ceiling increase.

"After 35 long years," the ad says, "tell Richard Lugar: No more debt."

The anti-tax group is backing a primary challenger against Lugar in next year's Republican primary.

This far from Election Day, it's hard to imagine voters thinking back to the summer of '11 and their lawmaker's position on raising the debt ceiling. But it's clear that advocacy groups see this vote as a way to rally their supporters, and to put members of Congress on notice that they're being watched.

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