VA Scandal Taking Center Role in 2014 Political Ads

(Tom Cotton)

Judging by candidates' ads, the hottest issue in House and Senate midterm elections this year is easily care for America's veterans.

This month alone, 23 House races and 10 Senate races have seen over 13,000 airings of television ads on the topic of veterans' healthcare or veterans' benefits according to Kantar Media's Campaign Media Analysis Group (CMAG).

The number of ads focusing on veterans' care and benefits has been steadily climbing in both House and Senate races. In May of this year there were 3,405 airings of TV ads, in June 6,366 airings, in July just over 8,000.

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Elizabeth Wilner, senior vice president at Kantar Media Intelligence, said the number of political ads on the issue of veterans swamps every other issue.

"I'm struck by how many veterans-themed ads are popping up and really cannot think of any other issue this year… that started resonating in such a widespread way across so many races," Wilner said.

Serving in the military has always been something candidates tout, especially in what is known as a "bio ad" or the ad that introduces the candidate to the viewer. This year voters saw GOP nominee Dan Sullivan's first general election ad telling Alaskans, "The Marine Corps shaped who I am." Rep. Tom Cotton running for Senate in Arkansas touts his service saying in an ad that the values he learned in the Army is what he'll bring to Washington. "Serious times deserve serious leaders," Cotton says.

The VA scandal, though, has given a reason for candidates running that perhaps don't have a military background to mention their care for veterans. Some are using service members in their ads explaining why the candidate will help fellow veterans.

Republicans have especially taken advantage of the scandal using it to criticize the Obama administration and their Democratic opponents. The first ad to mention the scandal was the Karl Rove-backed group Crossroads GPS, which aired in Alaska in May. "A national disgrace," the narrator says. "Veterans died waiting for care that never came," with the spot reminding viewers their "Senator Mark Begich sits on the Veterans Affairs Committee." Begich then aired two ads of his own featuring veterans, calling the attack ads false, and stressing his efforts to help Alaska veterans get the healthcare they need.

An audit by the VA's Office of Inspector General released this week, however, found that no veterans died because of delayed care at VA facilities.

Democrats have been more cautious in using the issue in ads. The Democratic Senate Campaign Committee is running an ad in Louisiana accusing Republican nominee Bill Cassidy of putting "millionaires before veterans."

In Iowa where Democrat Rep. Bruce Braley is in one of the tightest Senate races this cycle against National Guardsman Joni Ernst, a Braley ad features another National Guardsman saying, "We were the longest serving unit in the history of the Iraq conflict" and because of the extended stay entitled to extra pay which he says Braley "fought for us" to get. A Crossroads ad then aired hitting Braley on the veterans' care issue directly, saying he missed meetings of the Veterans' Affairs committee.

In House races, some candidates are lumping the VA scandal in with other administration crises or other issues. In the fight for New Hampshire's second congressional district, state Rep. Marilinda Garcia says in an ad the "IRS and Benghazi scandals, the VA disaster, and Obamacare's broken promises" are all reasons "we need a new generation of conservative leaders" in Washington. In Florida's 18th district, Democratic incumbent Rep. Patrick Murphy is in a tight toss-up race in the Palm Beach County area. His first general election ad features him talking to elderly veterans and stressing his work on their behalf, as well as "hold(ing) the VA accountable for excessive wait times."

Labor Day Weekend is considered the unofficial kick-off to the midterm season and it's only after the summer finally dwindles away do Americans really start paying attention to the campaigns. If that's true it's possible we may see even more ads stressing the VA scandal and mentioning veterans as we get closer to November.