California’s Special Election Triggers $200M+ Adspend

California’s upcoming special election, revolving around the hot-button issues of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s reform agenda, is yielding an ad spending explosion that has already topped $200 million—and that’s with 30 days of the heaviest spending still ahead.

With two sides fighting over each of the eight contentious ballot initiatives—involving public-employee unions and pharmaceutical companies, to name a couple—the demand for air time is increasing, as are prices for time.

The political windfall is making it difficult for year-round buyers to get media time, some say. “It’s a little unfair. It’s particularly hard on buyers who need to be out now—for a car launch, sales event or for a movie opening,” said Cathleen Campe, svp and director of spot broadcast for Honda agency RPA, Santa Monica.

Bonnie Chan, svp and managing director at Universal McCann, Los Angeles, which buys for Sony Pictures, said she “can feel the pinch.”

Around the Capitol’s Ballot Measure Scorecard has tracked all expenditures of some 30 special-interest groups, from Equality for All and Rebuilding California ($85,000 each) to Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America California Initiative Fund ($79 million) and its allied Californians for Affordable Prescriptions ($27 million).

Even compared to the California recall election of 2003, this election windfall seems unlimited, said Jean Brooks, evp of the political division at Palisades Media Group, Santa Monica, Calif. Because the election isn’t about candidates’ ads, “stations don’t have to offer lowest-unit charge, so the inventory is free-flowing.”

A typically heavy political buy for the Golden State’s 12 markets costs each cause $4 million a week, Brooks said. “The recall election caught stations off guard, in terms of inventory,” he added. “But when they heard the rumor that there might be a special election, they were prepared for it.” Free to bid out limited prime real estate, “the inventory is flowing like fine wine.”

The latest in a series of union-backed anti-proposition ads, under the umbrella group Alliance for a Better California, breaks this week statewide, said Jeff Millman, a spokesman for one of the alliance groups that opposes a Schwarzenegger-backed measure that would require all public-employee unions to get the written permission of all their members—2.2 million in the state—before using dues for backing political candidates or causes.

Typical of ads running for months now, the 30-second spot (“Next Time”) shows a Long Beach grade-school teacher explaining her passion for the job, after which a voiceover explains: “When the governor diverted billions from our schools … teachers like Lisa Dickason mobilized to stop him.” The theme of public employees being “silenced” comes from Sacramento political consultancy McNally Temple Associates. Dixon/ Davis & Associates, Washington, D.C., is focused on defeating one particular cause. Political strategist Don Sipple, who headed creative during Schwarzenegger’s recall election, is creative director for the pro-reform agenda ads.

A number of unions, including the powerful California Teachers Association, docked members paychecks to fatten their ad war chests. CTA assessed its 335,000 members $60 each for up to three years to raise $60 million, though a CTA rep said not all of it would go toward advertising.

“It’s particularly ironic that teachers are being forced to pay for the union’s opposition to a referendum to give teachers a choice about whether the union can spend their money for politics,” said Stefan Gleason, vp of the Springfield, Va.-based National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, which last week lost a bid in U.S. District Court in San Jose to put a restaining order on the union. For its part, the Defense Fund is pouring part of its $400,000 budget into a radio campaign that breaks this week.