- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Hampton Roads, the military-laden community on Virginia’s southeastern shoreline, is drowning in advertising.

It’s a swing region at every level: Rep. E. Scott Rigell, a Republican, is in the toughest battle for re-election of any of the state’s 11 congressmen, Virginia’s U.S. Senate race between two state political heavyweights is among the most competitive in the nation, and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney needs to win in Hampton Roads in order to offset increasingly Democratic Northern Virginia.

All of those campaigns — and the 14 independent groups that also are advertising in the region — make Hampton Roads more saturated than any major city in the other battleground states of Florida, Nevada, Colorado or Ohio.

“We are ground zero,” said Gary Byler, chairman of the Republican Party in the state’s 2nd Congressional District. “People always say, ‘This is the most important election of the lifetime. But what is true is that this is the one that’s had by far the most impact on my life.”

The ad war is so intense that independent groups, such as unions and super PACs backed by hedge fund managers, arguably overshadow the campaigns themselves.

Priorities USA, the pro-Obama super PAC that has struggled to raise funds, leads the pack here, making 85 ad buys in the Norfolk-Newport News market in the past month. That is more than any candidate and nearly three times as many as the better-funded pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future.

Overall, Republicans and Democrats are tied in advertising.

The reason for the intensity here is as much geographical as political: Hampton Roads is an amalgamation of demographics, sometimes starkly at odds with one another and all of which use the same airwaves.

The inner cities of Norfolk and Newport News are populated by blacks who are solid Democrats, but often don’t vote. President Obama must advertise to get them to the polls.

Thus, it is one of the few areas in the country where Priorities USA has outadvertised Restore Our Future.

“The black community was so excited about Obama last time, they came out in droves, but that was last time. They didn’t have that good feeling like they had last time, and that’s what these ads are for,” said Delegate Lionell Spruill Sr., a Democrat who has served nearly two decades in the state House of Delegates.

But Norfolk and Newport News are surrounded by suburban and rural areas that lean Republican and that are targets for conservative groups. Americans for Prosperity, a nonprofit group linked to the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers, has made 61 ad buys there, more than it has in all but two other cities.

Then there’s the naval base — the largest in the world — which means locals’ livelihoods are more tied to the government than other regions. With a federal budget “sequester” poised to slash military spending, locals are afraid and unsure which party would help.

Last week, the Newport News Shipyard, a contractor that builds the military’s aircraft carriers, offered buyouts to 1,200 workers.

“There’s this battle between the defense hawks and deficit hawks,” said Jesse T. Richman, a political science professor at Old Dominion University in Norfolk.

“People are struggling to find work because they retired from the military, and contractors they’d otherwise be working for have frozen hiring in anticipation,” Mr. Richman said.

Tim Kaine, a former governor and the Democrats’ Senate candidate, also has invested heavily in ads, making 48 buys since Aug. 1. His Republican opponent, George Allen, another former governor and former senator, has made just nine — though Republicans said they expect Mr. Allen to boost that number in the weeks leading up to the Nov. 6 election.

But it’s lower down on the ticket that makes this region bulge with more politicalparaphernalia than just about anywhere else. The 2nd Congressional District has changed hands in the past two elections, and this year’s contest, between Mr. Rigell and Democratic challenger Paul Hirschbiel, is the most competitive House race in the state.

As if that weren’t enough, “there’s a very hot slate of City Council races that will be elected on the same day,” said Mr. Byler, the district Republican Party chairman. “It’s cutting into our volunteer base.”

National political party committees have become involved in the House race, pouring money raised nationally into ads on behalf of their candidates.

It doesn’t hurt that airtime in Hampton Roads is inexpensive compared with that of Washington, which reaches Northern Virginia but also covers Maryland and the District — both of them reliably Democratic — or other swing markets, such as Denver.

The flood of ads has left voters confused about all of the politicians running for office, much less the different groups that are paying for ads on their behalf.

“Yes, yes they are. We’re so tired of seeing them. On both sides,” Mr. Spruill said.

Yet in some cases, it’s local groups that have asked for some of the onslaught.

“They’re not just coming in, they’re being invited in by traditional groups,” said state Sen. Kenny Alexander, a Democrat who just won a special election to the state Senate.

Community groups with strong local ties and a solid volunteer base, but little money, have made for perfect partners for super PACs, which often have just the opposite.

Democratic outside groups have worked with black churches and “nonpolitical groups like the NAACP — you know how they lean,” Mr. Alexander said.

On the Republican side it’s “tea party groups, libertarians, taxpayer alliances, that kind of thing,” Mr. Byler said.

He said the groundwork by the 14 interest groups, more so than a barrage of commercials, is likely to make the difference.

“At the end of the day, TV ads don’t vote, and it will be the people we’ve identified through those groups that do,” he said.

• Luke Rosiak can be reached at lrosiak@washingtontimes.com.

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