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Want to know what message midterm candidates think will win? Follow the money

Republicans have ramped up spending on ads about crime while Democrats have boosted spending on ads about abortion rights as November midterm elections draw nearer.
Bryan R. Smith
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AFP via Getty Images
Republicans have ramped up spending on ads about crime while Democrats have boosted spending on ads about abortion rights as November midterm elections draw nearer.

Updated October 11, 2022 at 10:01 AM ET

With the midterm elections a month away, ad spending tells the story of what messages the candidates and their backers think will win with voters.

For Democrats, there's been a significant increase in spending on ads related to abortion since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. And in many races, Republicans have amped up their ads accusing Democrats of being soft on crime.

According to AdImpact, a firm that tracks ads, Democrats spent more than $73 million on television ads about abortion in September, nationwide. That represents about a third of all Democratic television ad spending.

One such ad from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), goes after Rep. Steve Chabot, the Republican incumbent in Ohio's 1st Congressional District. It accuses Chabot of being "obsessed with banning abortion."

Earlier this year, Democrats were spending virtually nothing on abortion-related messaging. Then came the Supreme Court decision, and a flood of restrictive new laws. Vriti Jain, who does strategic messaging at the DCCC, said abortion is proving to be an extremely galvanizing issue.

"It's really powerful," Jain said. "It hits people really personally. And that's part of why you are seeing it show up on the airwaves across the country."

Jain said it isn't just polls or new voter registration numbers that have Democrats convinced. She pointed to a special election in August in upstate New York, where the Democratic candidate, Pat Ryan, leaned in on abortion as an issue of freedom in his campaign. He won, outperforming President Biden's 2020 vote margin in the district.

Abortion is a big factor in ads for governors' races

Longtime Republican operative Sarah Longwell has been spending time with swing voters this cycle for her podcast "The Focus Group." She always starts by asking what voters are worried about.

"The economy comes up first every single time," she said. "Crime comes up often." Abortion comes up less often, but Longwell said that issue matters a lot when the voters start talking about candidates who they won't vote for.

The voters Longwell has spoken to are acutely aware of abortion stances when it comes to governors' races, because they have more influence than ever over access to abortion in their states.

Republicans say they think voters care about crime and the economy

Dan Conston is president of the Congressional Leadership Fund, the House Republican super PAC backed by leader Kevin McCarthy. He said the Supreme Court ruling has complicated what could have otherwise been a Republican 'wave' election, given Biden's relatively low popularity, voter concerns about inflation and the economy, and historical patterns.

For Democrats, abortion "is the only message that they have," Conston said.

While voters in swing districts tend to support abortion rights, Conston said Republicans are "squarely focused on issues that we think the electorate cares most about — economic concerns, of which there are an endless number today, and concerns about public safety."

Cue the ominous music. "2020: murder in Cincinnati at an all-time high," says an ad from Conston's group, going after Democratic challenger Greg Landsman, a Cincinnati councilman. "Greg Landsman's response: defund the police."

It's part of a trend in Republican messaging as the midterms get closer. According to an NPR analysis of data from AdImpact, Republicans spent close to $40 million on crime-related messaging in September, more than tripling the number of GOP ads on that issue on the air from the month before.

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Democrats are also running ads touting increased funding for police

While Republicans aren't responding directly to abortion-related attack messaging from Democrats, Democratic candidates have mounted a defense on crime.

In Ohio, Landsman has an ad with men and women in uniform speaking directly to the camera to push back on the claim that he wants to defund the police, citing increased funding for law enforcement.

This was a lesson learned from 2020, when Republican ads accusing Democrats of wanting to defund the police proved effective, cutting into the Democratic majority in the House. In a memo obtained by NPR and sent in March to candidates in competitive districts, the DCCC encouraged candidates to seek out law enforcement endorsements.

"It is critical that candidates head into their election with at least one active or retired member of law enforcement who can go on the record and speak to their performance on the issues of crime and public safety," the March memo said. "Given the time and resources that this will require, including vetting the validator, preparing them for potential media attention, and scripting and shooting an ad, the time to secure commitments from validators is now."

The memo also implored all candidates in competitive races to have a ready answer for attacks portraying them as soft on crime or out to defund the police.

"One of the things that we found [in 2020] is that the attack on crime, the defund attack, often went unanswered, and that was something we needed to address head on," the DCCC's Jain said.

Crime is a central issue in advertising in the Wisconsin Senate race

Conston said Republican campaigns and outside groups aren't using crime-related messaging in every race — just the ones where it is most likely to stick, where the Democratic candidates or incumbents have expressed support for protesters, or talked about defunding or reprogramming funds for law enforcement.

For Republicans, messages about rising crime play to emotions like fear and anger to try to motivate people to vote — a notable strategy in a key Senate race in Wisconsin, where last year a man out on bail allegedly drove his vehicle into a parade.

In that state, 70% of Republican spending on digital advertising for the Senate race is focused on crime, while less than 15% is focused on the economy, said Guy Cecil, chairman of Priorities USA, a Democratic outside group that spends millions to try to mobilize voters, and also tracks online ad spending by both parties.

"When you want to know how candidates think they can win, you look at where they are spending their money," Cecil said.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.