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Hair, hockey and geeks: the top political advertising themes of 2014

Candidates and outside groups in Minnesota have focused their advertising around some common ideas. A look at the themes that have dominated the airwaves this year.

MinnPost photo illustration by Corey Anderson

Rich guys, hair, hockey, geeks and Tea Party extremists. 

If you live in Minnesota and have turned on your television at some point during the last two months, you’ve probably heard about one or all of these things. Political candidates and outside spending groups from both parties have focused their advertising around a common set of major campaign themes, trying to strike a chord at a time when voters have shown themselves to be particularly uninspired by this midterm election cycle.

Among other things, Republicans are trying to rally their supporters in rural Minnesota by claiming Democrats “left them behind” with their policies while they held complete control of state government over the last two years. Democrats, meanwhile, are trying to get their base out to vote by casting their opponents as wealthy, out-of-touch 1 percenters and Tea Party extremists who will take the state back to political gridlock.

With just one day left until the election, Minnesotans have only a few more hours to enjoy/endure the ads. Here, a look back at the eight themes that have dominated political advertising in the North Star state this fall:

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Inherited wealth vs. the middle class
Both Republicans and Democrats are fighting for the votes of middle class Minnesotans this campaign cycle, arguing the other party is out of touch with the struggles of average people. But it’s Democrats who have made this struggle a top theme in television ads this cycle, hammering 8th Congressional District Republican candidate Stewart Mills for his inherited wealth as heir to the Mills Fleet Farm empire. Most famously, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) is running an ad across the 8th District featuring a Mills look-a-like wearing boat shoes and grilling lobsters on a yacht, saying he “caught a big inheritance.” Another ad from House Majority PAC hits on the same theme, attacking Mills for allegedly supporting tax cuts for the wealthy while not supporting an increase in the minimum wage


Twin Cities vs. rural Minnesota
If their ads are any indication, Republicans are banking on a big turnout for the party in rural Minnesota this cycle. From the governor’s race to the state Legislature, the metro area verses the Twin Cities has been a consistent theme in their television advertising. In several of GOP gubernatorial candidate Jeff Johnson’s ads, for example, he talks about growing up in Detroit Lakes while standing amid an idyllic north woods backdrop. “That’s why it’s so frustrating to see Mark Dayton treat us like an afterthought,” he says, citing unequal education funding, a rail-focused transportation policy, and a lack of action on the PolyMet mining project on the Iron Range. Johnson, who currently lives in suburban Plymouth, goes as far to say “PolyMet is dead” if his opponent, Gov. Mark Dayton, is re-elected. The theme has been a common one in legislative races in rural Minnesota, too, with conservative groups like the Minnesota Jobs Coalition airing ads attacking DFL incumbents for “voting with Minneapolis liberals.”


Hair, Hockey and Hunting
There are just a few unwritten rules about political advertising in Minnesota: 1) don’t be too mean, and 2) if you can, make sure you get hockey, hunting or fishing in there. That’s why one of the Dayton’s first ads puts him in the role of hockey coach while boasting about his stellar record with the state’s economy (you can imagine the hockey puns). Republicans did it, too:  U.S. Senate candidate Mike McFadden played hockey in one of his first ads of the season. And both candidates in the 8th District Congressional race have ads featuring them in their blaze orange hunting gear. One of Mills’ ads is about his family hunting camp doctrine — if you complain about something, you have to do the job yourself — and how he would apply that to his work in Washington. But the most famous theme of the election is something else inextricably linked to hockey in Minnesota: Hair. Specifically, Mills’ shoulder-length ’do. Democrats have tried to use the fine locks to make Mills seem like an aristocrat, but Mills has fired right back, airing ads that show his childhood friends poking fun at his hair too. Time will tell which method is more effective.

Darn Good Coach

Hey, I’m a nerd!
Geek culture is trendy these days, and candidates running for office seem to know it. Take Johnson’s commercial citing his oft-touted plan to audit all state programs. In the ad, Johnson is seen using a scissors to trim his lawn after his son Thor finishes mowing, and he double-checks his son Rolf’s math homework. U.S. Sen. Al Franken’s ads have been wonky this cycle, too, bringing up deep-in-the-weeds legislation he championed to take special tax breaks away from hedge fund managers and to reform Wall Street credit rating agencies. For his part, Dayton uses an ad to tout his “unsession,” which combed through the state’s statute books to repeal redundant language. Even GOP Rep. Erik Paulsen, who isn’t facing a competitive challenge in the 3rd Congressional District, labels himself the math guy in one of his few ads of the campaign season. No matter who the candidate, the message is clear: I’m the nerd you can trust to run your government.


Who cares about education more
All-day kindergarten. College tuition freezes. Early childhood scholarships. Repayment of school debt. Those are the main education talking points of Democrats this cycle trying to retain power, and it’s been the most prominent theme in Dayton’s campaign ads. Alliance for a Better Minnesota, the largest liberal outside spending group in Minnesota, also produced an ad that goes after Johnson for voting to cut education funding while serving as a state House member. Franken also has an ad talking about his work to pass a law to allow people to renegotiate and refinance their student loans. Republicans have countered by pointing out that the state’s achievement gap is one of the worst in the nation.

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Jeff Johnson is Wrong for Minnesota

Democrats = Obama, Republicans = Romney
If there’s one thing McFadden wants voters to be thinking about as they head to the polls Tuesday, it’s how much Franken is like President Barack Obama. McFadden has been hitting the theme that Franken has voted with Obama 97 percent of the time during his first years in the Senate in nearly every paid ad on the air. It’s a standard campaign tactic — Obama is down in the polls, and Republicans are hoping to tie Franken to his unpopularity. But Democrats are also trying to paint McFadden with the same brush they applied to Mitt Romney in 2012 — portraying his job as an investment banker as similar to Romney’s old job in private equity. Franken’s ads claim McFadden, in his role as head of investment banking firm Lazard Middle Market, helped U.S. companies get tax breaks overseas. In Franken’s longest ad of the year, released just last week, he says McFadden’s firm had a hand in shutting down a working-class mill in Montana.

Can’t Hide

Ads about ads
Getting sick of those ads blasting across your screen? Well, some of them might not be 100 percent accurate, and candidates are addressing the problem by buying even more ads. Mills released an ad featuring a letter from KSTP TV — owned by Mills supporter Stanley Hubbard — stating they would no longer run an ad from the House Majority PAC that claimed Mills supported tax cuts for the wealthy. Mills said the ad unfairly strings together fragments of things he said at a campaign event. GOP U.S. Senate candidate Mike McFadden has also directly referenced “false” campaign attacks in two television ads.

Debate Pt. 2

Wait, what year is it?
Both parties are trying to use two themes that were prominent in the 2010 campaign. Republicans rode a massive wave that year by tapping into resentment with Democrats over passage of the Affordable Care Act, and four years later, they are hoping the GOP base is still riled up as each states implements the act through health care exchanges. The rocky rollout of MNsure, the state’s heath insurance exchange, has been a constant theme in statewide advertisements. Television ads in legislative races have tied DFL candidates to “Obamacare” and anti-Dayton ads regularly hit his administration for paying bonuses to “failed Obamacare bureaucrats.” Democrats, on the other hand, are trying to tap into a feeling of buyer’s remorse after the 2010 GOP wave brought Tea Party candidates into office across the nation. They’ve done their best to try to label everyone from Johnson to state House candidates as Tea Party extremists.