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‘Trump fatigue’? Candidates running for Congress in Texas don’t mention president much in TV adsThis article has
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Trump has so far appeared in only 4% of TV ads run in Texas congressional races, according to Advertising Analytics, an ad-tracking firm

WASHINGTON — In the tens of millions of dollars spent in Texas' battleground congressional races on TV ads — lavish expenditures that have so far resulted in spots collectively airing some tens of thousands of times — there’s been the relative absence of a key figure: Donald Trump.

Neither Democrats nor Republicans running for U.S. House or Senate in Texas are featuring the president much or at all in their TV campaigns, reflecting a trend playing out across the U.S.

The approach may seem counter-intuitive. Most experts expect the White House race between Trump and Democrat Joe Biden to drive turnout, and the president already dominates the news cycle, the social media landscape and so many other corners of the political debate these days.

But it’s just that saturation that’s likely causing Trump to be largely missing from Texas' congressional TV ad wars.

“He’s just ever-present everywhere else,” said Chelsea Roe, a North Texas Democratic consultant who is working with campaigns both at the federal and state level. “Texans are tired of hearing about it.”

Even Republicans agreed that most voters' feelings about the president are already baked in. So even though Trump produces strong reactions one way or another, candidates in down-ballot races may not have much to gain — in terms of winning over persuadable undecideds — by highlighting him.

“Trump doesn’t move numbers either way,” Vinny Minchillo, a Dallas-based GOP consultant who helped create TV ads for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in 2012, said of the net effect.

There are signs that Trump, ever the political lightning rod, could show up more frequently in those kinds of spots as Election Day nears.

In a hotly contested North Texas race, for instance, Rep. Colin Allred, D-Dallas, just launched a negative ad that shows his GOP opponent, Dallas businesswoman Genevieve Collins, welcoming Trump on an airport tarmac when the president visited Texas in July.

Trump has also started popping up in ads in a handful of other Texas congressional races.

Neither is the president the only notable national figure who has rarely been seen in TV ads run by Texas congressional candidates. Biden, the former vice president, so far has been barely cited at all, although that’s less surprising for a challenger who has been out of office nearly four years.

The reality is that down-ballot candidates are often using their airtime to try to break through the national political noise, rather than to amplify it, experts said. That’s doubly true in Texas, where expensive media markets make every advertising second precious.

“It’s a secondary tactic to hook on to coattails,” said James Aldrete, a Texas-based Democratic consultant who has worked for presidential campaigns and races at other levels. “Your first tactic is always, if you can, saying, ‘I’m with you on what matters most to you.’”

Texas is awash in political ads this year at the congressional level — reflecting a growing number of contested races, particularly in the suburbs outside of Dallas, Houston and Austin.

More than $49.2 million has been spent in Texas through mid-October on some 72,000 TV spots in U.S. House races across the state and the U.S. Senate battle between GOP Sen. John Cornyn and Democrat MJ Hegar, according to Advertising Analytics, an ad-tracking firm.

Is that enough for Texan TV-watchers to feel like they’re living in a bona fide battleground state?

“We’re going to get a taste of it,” Aldrete said, explaining that Lone Star State viewers still won’t likely get the full-on experience that voters are getting these days in traditional swing states like Pennsylvania or newfound hot spots like Georgia.

The pace in Texas is certain to pick up even more, especially now that early voting has started.

“For once, Texas is not being treated as an ATM,” Roe said, referring to the decades-long trend of out-of-state politicians swooping into Texas to fill up their campaign coffers. “Rather, it’s being treated as a depository.”

The resulting commercial break bombardments offer important clues on what the respective parties see as their best closing messages, keeping in mind that the tactics for TV ads are often different than those for mailers or Facebook ads.

“With TV, you sometimes have to be a little bit lighter with the negative, because it’s right there in your face,” said Matt Langston, a GOP consultant who works in Texas at the federal and state level. “With a mail piece or social media, you can go much harsher.”

Congressional candidates in both parties, as such, have spent the most time and money on airing ads that highlight their back stories and records.

But some 42% of the ads run to date in those Texas races have still been negative, according to Advertising Analytics. Outside groups, in particular, are pouring millions of dollars into the Lone Star State to sharpen their favored candidates' pitches.

Democrats have centered on health care, using a message about protecting the Affordable Care Act that helped them win back the House in 2018. Republicans have focused on issues like law enforcement and energy, linking their foes to “defunding the police” and the Green New Deal.

Trump shows up rarely, appearing in only 4% of the ads run so far in Texas' congressional battles, per a Dallas Morning News analysis of Advertising Analytics data.

Only Democrats have so far highlighted the president in TV ads. Lulu Seikaly, a Plano attorney, used Trump to go after Rep. Van Taylor, R-Plano, in a recent ad. Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, D-Houston, has done so repeatedly in her high-profile race against Republican Wesley Hunt, an Army veteran.

Outside groups are also starting to get in on the act.

House Majority PAC, a Democratic group, and LCV Victory Fund, an environmental group, just launched an ad that invokes Trump on health care to go after Beth Van Duyne, a Republican who is running in North Texas' mid-cities against Democrat Candace Valenzuela.

But there seems to be a general acknowledgement of “Trump fatigue” on the TV ad front, Aldrete said, even among Democrats who are eager to rip the president in other formats.

On the GOP side, candidates in Texas have already made plain, one way or another, their support for Trump. But some Republicans in swing districts may be “fearful of getting too close to Trump,” Minchillo said, and are calibrating their TV ad strategy accordingly.

Then there’s Biden, who has appeared down-ballot only in an ad that the Congressional Leadership Fund, a GOP group, used to jab at Fletcher over energy policy.

Langston, a GOP consultant, said that dynamic may underscore the electorate’s polarization and the fact that “most people have made up their minds at the top of the ticket.” Biden, even after winning the Democratic nomination, also hasn’t cast quite the same political shadow as Trump.

Indeed, it is other national Democrats who have appeared in Texas' congressional ad battles, though still not in an overwhelming fashion.

Several Republican candidates have used House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat; Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York; and others to knock their opponents on issues ranging from tax policy to the Green New Deal to Medicare for All.

Collins, for instance, cast Allred as a Pelosi puppet in one ad. Taylor, without naming names, accused Seikaly of wanting to turn Texas into California in another spot. Congressional Leadership Fund linked Valenzuela to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., to lob an attack on immigration.

Tom Benning. Tom covers the intersection of business and government in Washington. He came to D.C. in 2016 from The News' Austin bureau. He has also previously worked in Dallas, covering everything from City Hall to transportation to former President George W. Bush. He is a graduate of the University of South Carolina.

tbenning@dallasnews.com @tombenning

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