Reporting from Washington — Anti-incumbent anger and "tea party" conservatives may have set the tone for this year's midterm elections, but it was mostly experienced political operatives — not fervent newcomers — who managed the money.
While billions of dollars were spent on campaign ads and other efforts to gin up discontent with Washington, much of the spending was handled by veteran political consultants at a few longtime media firms — many in Washington.
An analysis of campaign finance records and data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics found that 15 firms raked in more than $400 million just from the candidates, party committees and outside groups that advertised in federal elections.
"Especially when it comes to television advertising … it's dominated by a few key players and a few key firms," said Erica Fowler, assistant professor of government at Wesleyan University and co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks advertising in federal elections. "Key actors on both sides are going to go to the known quantities to place those advertisements."
Much of that money was used to purchase airtime on local television stations, the firms said, noting that media buyers typically earn a small percentage as a commission or fee.
"We had a lot of the hot races and we did very well, but the vast majority of that money — and I mean virtually all of it — is going to pay the television stations," said Jim Margolis, a partner at GMMB, a Democratic political consulting and advertising firm. "Consequently, it is a complete distortion to think in any way, shape or manner that is all income to GMMB."
The air war resembled an arms race, with both Republican and Democratic campaigns frantically pumping more money into advertising to keep up with their competitors.
In all, candidates and political committees spent an estimated $3 billion airing television, radio and Internet commercials in local, state and federal races, up from $2.7 billion in 2008 and $2.4 billion in 2006, according to Campaign Media Analysis Group, a division of Kantar Media that tracks political advertising.
About two-thirds of the money — an estimated $2 billion — was used to purchase airtime from local television stations.
An examination of the volume of business handled by media firms with the highest total revenue for federal elections produced a list of operatives who probably benefited the most from this year's buying spree.
The top-grossing media shop was GMMB, which took in at least $112 million for advertising in federal campaigns. Three prominent Democratic Party committees — the congressional and senatorial campaign committees and the Democratic Governors Assn. — sent their business to the Georgetown-based firm, as did California Sen. Barbara Boxer and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Experienced GOP media consultants also raked in a large share. Topping the list were National Media Research Planning & Placement, an Alexandria, Va.-based firm that handled advertising for George W. Bush's 2004 presidential campaign, and Mentzer Media, a Towson, Md.-based firm headed by Bruce Mentzer, who has placed more than $300 million in ads since 1985.
Also on the Republican side was Crossroads Media, a media-placement firm that took in close to $40 million in ad buys for clients that included American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, advocacy groups cofounded earlier this year by Republican strategist Karl Rove.
Patti Heck, president of Crossroads Media, said the firm took in more than the approximately $40 million that was disclosed in federal campaign finance reports, but she declined to specify how much.
In the end, though, "it was the television stations that benefited the most," Heck said. "I would say they were the real winners."
Heck said her firm — founded in 2001 by conservative activist Michael Dubke — is not affiliated with the other two Crossroads groups. She dismissed the similar names as coincidental. However, Carl Forti, political director at American Crossroads, worked with Dubke to form another firm, the Black Rock Group. Crossroads Media and the Black Rock Group share the same Alexandria, Va., address, according to their websites.
Heck said that in the final days of the elections, stations attempted to raise ad rates because airtime was so scarce.
"At the end, when everyone was buying, it just got insane," she said. "At times, we said, 'We're not paying it' and went to cable or something else. It gets offensive after a while."
Margolis said some stations reduced local programming to squeeze more political ads on the air, with as many as 10 spots crammed into a single break.
"Unquestionably, you get to a point of limited return," he said. "But if there are three different groups with an ad up against you in a break, the idea that you're not going to be there at all is a little frightening. While the effectiveness may be reduced, you just can't afford not to be there."