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Political Groups Aim Early Attacks At New Hampshire Senator

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Even with 10 months to go before the midterm congressional elections, some political and ideological groups are already on the air, attacking incumbents they hope to take down in November.

One race that's attracting early advertisers is in New Hampshire, where Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen is seeking a second term, and two tax-exempt social welfare organizations are buying ads against her.

The ads echo the Republican National Committee's strategy of tying Democrats to the Affordable Care Act. RNC chairman Reince Priebus told reporters last week that Obamacare "is going to be the number one issue in 2014."

The RNC has made only small radio buys so far in New Hampshire. But viewers there have been seeing TV ads with messages like this one: "Tell Senator Shaheen, it's time to be honest. Obamacare doesn't work. New Hampshire families deserve better."

It's from Americans For Prosperity. The group's president, Tim Phillips, says the ads aren't election ads, "they're issue ads, designed to work toward the eventual repeal of Obamacare."

That's because Americans For Prosperity, as a social welfare organization, isn't supposed to focus on partisan politics. "We don't have any view at all on the potential candidates who may get into different races," Phillips says.

Knowing The Election Date

So why not advertise in, say, Vermont and Maine?

"We have found that senators and House members who have to face the voters in the near future are more responsive on issues," Phillips says.

He says that with its ads, printed materials and voter contact, Americans For Prosperity is spending several hundred thousand dollars in New Hampshire, a minuscule sum compared to the tens of millions of dollars it spent as a top TV advertiser in the 2012 election cycle.

Social welfare groups, unlike political committees, don't have to release lists of their donors.

It isn't the only social welfare group on the air in New Hampshire. The other one is called Ending Spending. Like AFP, it's based in Northern Virginia.

The Ending Spending ad uses video of Shaheen vowing, "You can keep your insurance if you like it." The ad ends with a kicker: "So next November, if you like your senator, you can keep her. If you don't, you know what to do."

Brian Baker, president of Ending Spending, says the group regards this ad as explicitly political. But that's legally allowed as long as Ending Spending is primarily devoted to social welfare.

The organization's social welfare mission is working for a balanced budget and smaller federal debt, Baker says, "and we think the only way you're going to do that is to elect fiscally responsible leaders. So we know what the election date is and we kind of work back from that."

Many New Hampshire Republicans hope that Shaheen will be challenged by former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, who recently moved into the state. National and state Democratic committees have run a few ads sniping at his old Senate record.

Baker says Brown fits the Ending Spending idea of a fiscally responsible politician. "The TV ads against Senator Shaheen are definitely a part of the Draft Scott Brown effort," Baker says.

Benefits For Republicans

And while Ending Spending and Americans For Prosperity say their main missions are social welfare, the New Hampshire GOP is glad to see six-figure ad campaigns that link Shaheen to Obamacare.

"This is going to be a long-term issue that will continue to dog Shaheen until Election Day," says Ryan Williams, an adviser to the state party committee. "It makes sense to bring up this message now, to hammer it home, and to damage her numbers and to continue to make the case that she doesn't deserve to be re-elected in November."

But some outside analysts say ads this early in the season are essentially worthless.

"This happens over and over again. They're after the attention," says Stuart Rothenberg, a longtime analyst of political contests. He says early advertisers have self-serving agendas to "please contributors, appeal to future contributors and overall get a reputation that they're players in the political world."

Now, it's a world where outside groups and their hidden donors can't wait to weigh in on the next election.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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