SIOUX CITY | TV viewers in Siouxland last week may have seen Mark Jacobs brandishing a calculator as he promised to fix Washington's problems, or heard an off-air announcer describe Ben Sasse as "Nebraska's ObamaCare Nemesis" while a brilliant sun set over a weathered red barn.
The political ads touting Jacobs and Sasse -- U.S. Senate contenders in neighboring Iowa and Nebraska, respectively -- are part of an opening salvo in a hotly contested campaign season expected to dominate local airways in the weeks and months leading up to primary and general elections in Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota.
With control of the U.S. Congress and governor's mansions and statehouses in Des Moines, Lincoln and Pierre up for grabs and a bevy of candidates and outside interest groups raising huge sums of money, a political buying spree likely awaits Sioux City stations.
"We're anticipating that it's going to be a very robust year for political spending in the market," said John Curry, general manager for local ABC affiliate KCAU.
Siouxland TV viewers are used to a barrage of political spots flooding the channels.
The tri-state viewing area ended the 2012 election cycle as one of the top five nationally in candidate and issue-oriented spending, as a percentage of total market revenue. In a spirited contest for Iowa's five electoral votes, President Barack Obama and GOP nominee Mitt Romney and their allies unleashed $7.33 million in ads on Sioux City stations between March and November 2012.
Adrian Wisner, general sales manager for KTIV, the local NBC and CW affiliate, said while 2014 election spending undoubtedly won't be nearly as high as the presidential level two years ago, it likely will rival the last mid-term election. In 2010, the market combined to take in $2.5 million. Wisner said that was the most she had witnessed for a mid-term election in her 30 years in the advertising business.
Sioux City is one of the rare U.S. markets that extend into three states. This year, for the first time in recent memory, all three have races for open U.S. Senate seats.
Voters in all three states also will elect a governor and a representative to the U.S. House. Add in contests for the state legislatures, other statewide offices and various campaigns for state ballot issues and the local airways likely will be cluttered with political ads by the general election in November.
Up first is Nebraska's May 13 primary, followed by June 3 primaries in Iowa and South Dakota.
While the Republican Senate races in Iowa and Nebraska feature crowded fields of candidates capable of funding expensive TV ad campaigns, spending in the Sioux City market is off to a somewhat slow start, said Steve Scollard, general manager of sister stations KMEG and KPTH, the local CBS and Fox affiliates, respectively.
"It's kind of like people waiting at the starting line to begin a marathon," Scollard said. "They're all looking at each other, waiting to see who's going to break first. Somebody breaks from the pack, and everybody else decides it's time to start running."
Wisner said she expects ad buys to kick into high gear later this month, when stations start offering candidates more favorable rates, as required by federal election law.
Within 45 days of a primary and 60 days of a general election, stations must charge candidates “the lowest unit rate,” which is calculated as the average of what all advertising during a particular show costs. In practice, candidates sometimes pay more to ensure their commercials aren’t bumped to less desirable time slots.
The 45-day window for the Nebraska primary kicks in March 24, Wisner said. Because Sioux City stations cover a multi-state region, that's also the starting date for Iowa and South Dakota candidates.
That means candidates in those two states will have 75 days before their primaries to run commercials at the lowest rates, she said.
Mark Jacobs, one of five Republican contenders for the Iowa Senate seat opening with the retirement of Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, didn't even wait for better rates.
Jacobs, a former energy company executive who has injected a heavy dose of his own money into his campaign, was the first to go on the air in Sioux City, with a spot in December designed to introduce himself to voters.
Last week, Jacobs started running a second spot in the Sioux City, Des Moines and Cedar Rapids markets that seeks to contrast his business leadership of being able to balance a budget, reduce debt and turn around a struggling company with Washington’s "empty toolbox."
Also in the hunt for the Republican nod are state Sen. Joni Ernst, former U.S. Attorney Matt Whitaker, Sioux City talk-radio host and Morningside College professor Sam Clovis and David Young, the former chief of staff to GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley.
Democrats quickly coalesced behind Rep. Bruce Braley, who represents an eastern Iowa House district.
Political analysts see the race for the Senate seat in the swing state of Iowa as one of several that could decide control of the Senate, where Democrats now hold a five-seat majority.
In deep red Nebraska, Republicans are heavy favorites to hold the Senate seat being vacated by GOP Sen. Mike Johanns. But the contest for the Republican nomination is a hotly contested affair that is attracting a great deal of outside money.
Former state Treasurer Shane Osborn has considerable advantage in name recognition over the other top-tier contenders, who include Midland University President Ben Sasse, Omaha banker Sid Dinsdale and Omaha attorney Bart McLeay. Clifton Johnson of Fort Calhoun rounds out the five-man Republican field.
None of the Nebraska candidates has yet to air his own commercial in the Sioux City market. But starting last week an outside group, the Legacy Foundation Action Fund, weighed in on behalf of Sasse.
The Legacy-paid ad touts a cover story about Sasse that appeared in the conservative publication National Review, which dubbed the tea party favorite "Nebraska's ObamaCare Nemesis."
Wisner said more spending on the Nebraska Senate race is on the way, from both the candidates and outside groups. KTIV's coverage extends into nine northeast Nebraska counties, nearly as many as the station's 12-county Northwest Iowa area.
"There have been years that the Nebraska spending has exceeded the Iowa spending," Wisner said.
Executives with KTIV and other Sioux City stations don't expect to pull in many South Dakota political ads this year, primarily because their coverage maps are mostly limited to a single county, Union, in the southeast corner of the state. Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard also is widely expected to cruise to re-election, and former GOP Gov. Mike Rounds is a heavy favorite to capture the Senate seat being vacated by retiring Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson.
Legacy Foundation, which advocates for “responsible and responsive government” on issues from tax policy to education, is one of the growing number of 501(c)(4) groups, named for the chapter in the tax code from which they derive their authority.
The so-called super-PACs, which can collect and spend unlimited sums of cash, flooded the nation's airways with issue-oriented ads in the 2012 presidential election and are already running commercials boosting 2014 candidates they favor and attacking candidates they oppose.
Americans for Prosperity, the advocacy group backed by billionaire brothers and businessmen David H. and Charles Koch, has opened an Iowa office and has bombarded Braley with hard-hitting ads on ObamaCare.
NextGen Climate Action, an advocacy group headed by billionaire Tom Steyer, is looking to back Braley and other Senate candidates who support climate change legislation, and attack other contenders who oppose such efforts.
Local stations do not have to offer PACs and other outside groups the same lowest unit rates as candidates.
“Rate is not an issue for the super-PACs,” Chuck DeVendra, director of sales at WBNS-TV, a CBS affiliate in Columbus, Ohio, told Bloomberg News in an August 2012 story. “There’s so much demand that we’ve had to walk away from some of their money.”