NASHVILLE — It's often said that talk is cheap, but that isn't always the case when it comes to getting your message across to voters in a U.S. Senate race.
So far, Tennessee's three Republican candidates and one of the two major Democrats running, collectively have plunked down at least three-quarters of a million dollars for television broadcast and cable TV ad buys, according to figures obtained by the Times Free Press.
Before all the shouting is over and done with, the totals in the Aug. 7 primaries' "ad wars" are expected to rise far higher as candidates engage in self-promotion, attack rivals, defend themselves and counter-attack.
The latest to join the fray is incumbent Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, who today begins an initial $48,000 run on an ad seeking to reinforce his credentials with GOP primary voters as an early opponent to President Obama's Affordable Care Act.
According to the figures obtained by the Times Free Press, Alexander's campaign has booked some $446,000 for ads running statewide through the Aug. 7 GOP primary that also features Tea Party favorite Joe Carr, a state representative, and Memphis physician and businessman George Flinn.
Carr and Flinn are up with their ads too, with Carr taking a slap at Alexander by name on immigration. Carr's campaign says he is running $200,000 worth of ads, a number borne out in figures on buys over a three-week period.
Flinn, a multi-millionaire who is largely self-funding his effort, isn't saying what he's spending, but his initial buy is about $50,000, according to figures provided to the Times Free Press by a Republican strategist. While not mentioning Alexander by name, Flinn's ad heaps blame on "career politicians" for national problems like "border security" and a "broken" Veterans Administration system.
Democrat Gordon Ball, a multi-millionaire Knoxville attorney who has said he plans to spend up to $400,000 in his primary race, is spending $64,600 right now, according to the figures obtained by the Times Free Press.
His 30-second spot is aimed at voters in the Democratic primary, where he faces fellow Knoxville attorney Terry Adams and Larry Crim among others.
Adams, who has said he will have enough money to compete in the primary, isn't running anything yet.
There are good reasons why candidates who can afford it run these kinds of ads, said Dr. John Geer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University.
"Obviously the ads themselves reach some voters and voters can look at the ads and learn something from them -- that's one source of influence," said Geer. "The other part is it gets conversation going about the campaign."
Toss in news coverage of what the candidates are saying and Geer said a well-done ad "can drive the narrative" in a campaign, "so it becomes really important."
From a "quality point of view," Alexander's current spot is "the most professionally done" in terms of sound and image, Geer said. Both Carr's and Flinn's ads "are perfectly fine, not super-slick ads but done with some competence," he added.
Carr's and Flinn's ads are "run of the mill ... and right now for those candidates you need more than just run of the mill," Geer said. "You want to get an ad that's going to capture people's attention, and news organizations' as well."
But the worst things about their ads, said Geer, is that "whatever anti-Lamar vote that's out there, which there's some [but] it's not super-large, is being split."
Alexander's spot, entitled "Lamar Was Right," seeks to reinforce the image of Alexander as an early critic of Obamacare who took the fight directly to the president. But it may feature some inaccuracies.
While the announcer doesn't say it, the ad has a caption reading "Individual premiums up 50%+ 2010 to 2013" and cites the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation.
The Memphis Commercial Appeal over the weekend, however, found fault with the ad's assertion, noting that at least in Tennessee, one of the insurance plans offered under the Affordable Care Act has actually seen a drop in premiums.
Other plans' increases were less than 50 percent, the newspaper reported.
Meanwhile, Carr's hit on Alexander and illegal immigration has gotten its own ding, this one courtesy of FactCheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
"There's a crisis in America; thousands of illegal aliens are overrunning our border," Carr says in the 30-second TV spot. "President Obama created this crisis only after Lamar Alexander voted for amnesty. He is responsible."
But FactCheck.org, which gauges political ads for truthfulness and accuracy, said Carr's claim isn't so.
It says the surge in illegal border crossings is "the result of poverty and violence in parts of Central America and has been fueled by false rumors being spread in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras that the U.S. is issuing 'permits' to those who wish to live in the U.S."
"The problem is real," FactCheck said. "But the ad uses false logic to blame Alexander for it." Carr's campaign manager defended the ad, calling it "100 percent true."
Alexander's last disclosure showed he had some $3.4 million in cash on hand as of March 30. He announced last week that he raised another $900,000 in the second quarter.
Carr had spent about half the $400,000 he reported in cash on hand as of March 30.
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...