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Analysis: Candidates Enter Season of Campaign Spending

Campaigns, always trying to raise money, shift into another gear when the primaries are looming: It's time to spend some of that cash.

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In the final weeks before a primary election, the expenditures section of the campaign finance reports often reveals more than the contributions side. Money, after all, is truly interesting when it is put to use.

Take a peek at the reports filed last week by the four Republicans running for lieutenant governor. Until the end of the year, the attention was on fundraising. The amount raised is a proxy of the support for each candidate and an indication of whether the campaigns will be able to fight for attention in a state with 20 advertising markets.

Checks were still arriving in January, most of them covered in the latest reports. The money raised by the candidates for lieutenant governor ranged from Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson’s low of about $36,000 to Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst’s high of $253,000.

Those were the little numbers on the reports and also not as interesting as the spending numbers. Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples spent $2.7 million during the first three weeks of January. State Sen. Dan Patrick spent $2.3 million, and Dewhurst spent $1.1 million. Patterson’s treasury is smaller, and so was his outlay: just $152,000.

Voters are about to see what the other three were buying and probably continued to buy after the reports were filed: advertising.

The lieutenant governor’s race is the most expensive of the primary season, but not the only one. Similar trends are evident — albeit with smaller dollar amounts involved — in statewide races like the ones for attorney general and comptroller.

The March 4 primary election is just more than three weeks away, and early voting starts in nine days. The pace of forums, debates and town halls has picked up. Voters, to the extent that they will pay any attention at all, are starting to take notice. There are obstacles. The Winter Olympics overlap early voting and will compete for public attention.

All of it — the list of candidates, the number of competitive races and the shrinking amount of available time — makes television advertising more expensive.

This year, most of the competitive statewide primaries are on the Republican side. Even there, in races in which one candidate dominates or only one has enough money, advertising is almost an afterthought. For the others, the “air wars” are a critical part of the strategy.

Fewer than 1.5 million of the state’s residents vote in a typical Republican primary, and the campaigns are particular about when they advertise, on which channels and during which shows. The most desirable airtime disappears first.

“There are only so many spots on Fox between 4 and 7,” a Republican political consultant, Allen Blakemore, said. “The inventory is already a factor. The issue is who got the good stuff and who didn’t.”

Blakemore is in a decent mood, because many of his candidates, like Patrick, managed to buy some TV time early. While his candidates have not been able to shut out the competition, they did get first pick, and early birds often pay lower rates.

“You have a situation where the 10 o’clock news is sold out or that what is still available is four times as expensive,” Blakemore said.

The news programs sell particularly fast, when political candidates are the product being advertised. “People don’t DVR the news. They watch when it’s on,” he said. “Plus, it’s the demographic that we want. People who vote.”

He and other consultants encourage candidates to buy early if they have the money. The primary election date is an obvious target, but in many parts of the state more than half of the people who vote will do so before March 4. Candidates want to introduce themselves and leave a favorable impression before Feb. 18, when early voting begins. If you are not seeing ads already, you will almost certainly be seeing them soon.

“We knew in early January it was going to be sold out,” said Haley Beth Davis, whose Dallas-based Davis Lenz Media buys advertising time for various campaigns and consultants, including Blakemore.

They pushed anyone who had the money to buy early. Not everybody could or did do that, and the buying won’t be over until March.

“We always have candidates coming in at the last minute with a handful of money, asking what they can still buy,” Davis said. “It’s never too late.”

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Politics 2014 elections Campaign finance