Veterans' issues crack top 10 in political advertising

 ·  Susan Davis, USA Today   ·   Link to Article

A U.S. war veteran salutes during a dedication for the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial in Washington.(Photo: Molly Riley, AP)

WASHINGTON — The fallout from revelations about poor veterans' health care has helped vault veterans' issues into the top tier of political issue ads for the first time in an election year.

"There's never been an opening like the VA scandal has provided for non-veterans to talk about veterans in their advertising before," said Elizabeth Wilner with Kantar Media's Campaign Media Analysis Group. "Voters are more sensitive to the needs of veterans this cycle than they have been in the past."

Veterans' care burst into the national debate this year when it was revealed that dozens of veterans' hospitals were plagued with bureaucratic problems that prevented veterans from receiving timely care. As a result, Congress approved a $16.3 billion veterans' care bill this summer to help ease those delays. The issue lingers on the campaign trail.

According to a CMAG analysis, more ad spots on veterans' issues have aired since Labor Day than in the preceding nine months, underscoring the importance placed on the issue by candidates and outside groups in the home stretch of the 2014 congressional elections.

There have been more than 42,000 broadcast TV spots aired on veterans' issues since September, dwarfing other issues that have emerged in the closing weeks. For instance, according to Wilner's analysis, 14,105 spots have mentioned equal pay legislation for women, while 6,869 spots since Labor Day have mentioned terrorism.

The issue with the most political ad spending in 2014 remains health care. As of September, nearly 141,000 broadcast ads had been run in Senate races.

Campaign ads for Vets(Photo: Janet Loehrke, USA TODAY)

The collective effect has pushed veterans' into the top 10 of issues in political advertising this year, along with perennial issues such as health care, jobs and the economy.

"It's really quite striking," Wilner said. "Everyone is now so fixated on ads about (the Islamic State), and everyone is so fixated on ads talking about women's issues, but there are more ads about this issue, and no one has really noticed."

Democrats and their aligned groups have more aggressively used veterans' issues: 69% of the veterans ads since Labor Day have been sponsored by Democrats and 31% by Republicans.

Jon Soltz, a veteran and chairman of VoteVets.org, a liberal veterans' advocacy group, said the partisan split is not surprising because Democrats have more often pushed to increase funding for veterans' programs.

"It's a values argument, and Democrats have the advantage legislatively because they continually vote to fund veterans, to give veterans what they need." For example, many Democratic ads cite a Senate vote in February in which 41 Republicans voted against advancing a bill that would fund and expand health care and education programs for veterans.

VoteVets.org ran a broadcast ad in September in the Kentucky Senate race criticizing Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., for being one of those Republicans. "Sen. McConnell, I did my duty. But after 30 years in Washington, you failed to do your's. It's time for you to go," says a Vietnam War veteran featured in the ad.

Soltz's group is spending $5 million in U.S. Senate race ads this year. All of them either feature a candidate who is a veteran or a veteran speaking on behalf of a candidate.

Republicans have also used veterans' issues to target Democrats in certain races. In the Iowa Senate race, Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley has been on the defensive against stinging ads by Concerned Veterans for America, a conservative advocacy group, for missing a large number of Veterans Affairs Committee hearings. "Congress was warned (about the VA scandal), but Bruce Braley ignored it," the ad stated.

The attack worked. A Des Moines Register poll in late September gave Republican Joni Ernst, a veteran, a 44%-38% lead over Braley and revealed that two-thirds of likely Iowa voters said his committee attendance was a problem. Braley went on the air with a response ad defending his support of veterans.

Not all veterans ads are negative, and the debate has provided candidates ways to trumpet what they've done in Congress for veterans.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., is running for re-election in a safe seat. He chose to highlight veterans' care in his first ad of the cycle, which went on the air in mid-September. The ad features the wife of a veteran praising the senator for legislation he supported to assist primary caregivers for wounded veterans. "I believe that for Dick Durbin. It's not about politics. He cares about veterans and their families," the wife says in the ad.

For Wilner, the focus on veterans' issues — particularly the positive spots — is a rare bright spot in this year's political ad wars. "So many ads are nasty, and hardly any of them have anything good to say, but this is sort of one good thing that might come out of all this advertising that people are acknowledging that looking after this group of Americans is important," she said.

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