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What those annoying campaign ads tell us about where we’re at

Tom Baxter

By Tom Baxter

What are those pesky political ads, currently the background noise in thousands of Georgia living rooms, really telling us about the state of our politics?

There’s a general sense, talking to viewers in different parts of the state, that this year’s crop of political ads is more hard-edged and extreme than ever. Those 2018 Brian Kemp ads with his guns and his pickup truck raised some eyebrows, but they seem almost quaint in this season. This year, we have Marjorie Taylor Greene blasting away at targets with an AR-15 mounted on the back of a Humvee. (With the withdrawal of her Democratic opponent over the weekend, Greene path to victory in the 14th District congressional race has been cleared, so we won’t be seeing a sequel this year.)

Viewers have grown accustomed to the good-cop bad-cop nature of the ads we see in the big races these days. Super PACs get down in the mud, so the candidate’s ad campaign doesn’t have to.

This is literally true of U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s campaign. Her campaign ads are full of inspiring testimonials from voters, while the recently formed super PAC Georgia United Victory has blanketed the airwaves with an ad showing hogs rooting in mud while a voiceover talks about U.S. Rep. Doug Collins’ votes for pork barrel projects.

The rise of social media and the splintering of the American attention span have caused some to question how effective television ads still are, but this race shows how much difference television still makes. Her poll numbers have risen dramatically since her double-barreled television blitz began.

In a confusing jungle primary, with ads from the David Perdue-John Ossoff race also on the air, it costs a lot of money to cut through the fog. Raphael Warnock’s ads have been interesting, for instance, but you wonder how many people understand which race he’s in. This works to the advantage of the deep-pocketed Loeffler, who has trained all her firepower on only one of her 20-odd primary opponents, her Republican rival, Collins.

If the ads from these two big-money U.S. Senate races can feel overwhelming, consider what viewers in Columbus are going through. On top of the two Georgia Senate races, they’re getting the ads from the Senate races in Alabama between incumbent Democratic Sen. Doug Jones and former Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville, who defeated former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in a Republican primary.

We’ve seen a lot more pro-Trump ads in Georgia than most had expected, an indication the president’s campaign is at least somewhat concerned about keeping Georgia in his column. We’ll know if Joe Biden really intends to challenge Trump in the state — which isn’t yet clear — when the Biden ads begin to multiply.

The ad which speaks most directly to the presidential race in Georgia isn’t from Trump or Biden, but from U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath, a Democrat defending her seat against Karen Handel, the Republican she defeated two years ago. McBath takes a clip of Handel bragging that she had supported Donald Trump “98 percent of the time” and bashes her with it, claiming that Handel “enables Trump, and not you.”

Bear in mind, that’s an ad for the 6th District, which sent Newt Gingrich and later Johnny Isakson to Congress. The Biden campaign may not yet be sure how competitive he can be in Georgia, but McBath has placed a large bet that not only Trump but a Republican who supported him is vulnerable in her district.

Handel’s ad, airing at the same time, talks about how the coronavirus ruined the economy and McBath doesn’t have a plan for bringing it back. She doesn’t mention Trump.

One question about this year’s ad crop is when it’s going to end. Unless the Senate jungle primary produces a clear winner in November, there will be ads in that races stretching all the way into January. And although it’s horrific, it’s not inconceivable that if the presidential race is deadlocked after Election Day, the campaigns might continue to put up ads in the attempt to influence public opinion.

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Tom Baxter
Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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