Big spenders: Nearly $750K committed to TV ads in CD1 race

Five candidates and one PAC battle it out in air war leading up to Sept. 5 primary

By: - August 2, 2023 3:35 pm

In her ad for Rhode Island’s 1st Congressional District, Lt. Gov Sabina Matos tells voters she’s running “to fight four our rights, our freedoms.” Her campaign spent nearly $280,000 to air this on broadcast TV through Election Day. (Screenshot)

With uplifting music and images of family, a narrator’s voice tells the story of Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos and her journey to America, her experience learning English, and her service in local and state government before the 1st Congressional District candidate walks onto screen.

“The American dream is real,” Matos said. “But we have to work hard to protect it from MAGA Republicans who would destroy everything we value.”

That 30-second message will be played more than 1,400 times on broadcast television by the  time polls close for the Sept. 5 special primary, according to filings with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Matos is one of a dozen Democrats running for the seat that opened after David Cicilline stepped down at the end of May.

As of Aug. 1, five Democratic candidates and one interest group have collectively spent $733,389 for 3,356 broadcast TV ads — enough to cover more than an entire day of nothing but political commercials. 

Campaigns have also filed paperwork for hundreds of ad spots on cable, while no purchases made through radio were documented.

Christopher Parker, a political science professor at the University of Rhode Island (URI), said the money being spent is “probably on the high end for a special election.” But it is common to see such big expenditures in crowded races to fill an open seat.

“The more competitive elections are, the more money people are going to spend on them,” he said.


Matos’ campaign is easily the biggest spender, reserving $279,634 worth of ad time.

The lieutenant governor is also getting help from BOLD PAC, the campaign arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which purchased 615 ad spots between Aug. 4 and 14 for a total of $182,545, according to FCC filings. The PAC, which seeks to get more Latinos and Latinas elected to Congress, endorsed Matos’ run in April

The next top spender is former White House Aide Gabe Amo, whose campaign purchased 670 ad spots for $133,000. His campaign said it intends to spend $225,000 though the primary.

Former Yale Professor Don Carlson has so far spent $69,670 and former State Rep. Aaron Regunberg’s campaign has purchased $43,8440 in ads.

Chelsea Decesare, spokesperson for the Carlson campaign, said Wednesday that the campaign has reserved 2,500 broadcast television spots, totaling more than $240,000.

“That’s more than any other individual campaign,” Decesare said.

Additionally, Carlson’s campaign is in the 4th week of a digital ad buy totaling nearly $70,000. 

Pawtucket State Sen. Sandra Cano, whose campaign was the latest to file with the FCC on Aug. 1, purchased 95 broadcast spots for $24,660.

All about tone

Though the spending may differ, all five ads have one thing in common: Each focus on introducing who the candidates are and that they have the experience to be in Washington.

That’s kind of the point in a crowded primary, said URI political science professor Emily Lynch.

“It’s expected to be a small turnout, so distinguishing yourself among many candidates will be key,” Lynch said. “That’s potentially the only information people are going to get about these candidates.” 

URI marketing professor Dan Sheinin said that where the tone in a general election is more targeted on the issues, primary ads are “to build a comfort level and a familiarity.”

“I think it’s hard for people to distinguish themselves on message,” he said. “So often they’re dominated and dictated by party norms.”

Amo, Cano, Carlson, and Matos all stick to introductions with their 30-second spots. Common themes involve personal and professional journeys.  

Amo highlights his journey “as a poor kid from Pawtucket” who rose through the ranks to work in President Barack Obama and Joe Biden’s administrations. 

Cano’s spot, titled “Her Story,” showcases the Pawtucket Democrat’s background as an immigrant who fled political conflict in Colombia, as a mother who has dealt with reproductive health issues, and as the daughter of a gun violence survivor before ending with a shot of her family.

Carlson uses his ad to highlight being a fourth-generation Rhode Islander, working as a volunteer EMT in Jamestown, and that he’s “worked on Capitol Hill and I know how Congress operates.”

While Regunberg’s also introduces who he is, the ad highlights progressive policies he would fight for if elected — namely a Green New Deal and Medicare for All — and touts an endorsement from U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)

TV ads still win elections

The internet has changed many things about campaigning and news consumption, but television is still the best way to reach out to an electorate — especially for a primary, Parker said.

That’s because voters in primaries tend to skew older, Parker said, which means they’re less likely to get their news from Facebook, Twitter, or other sources.

Social media still plays a role in campaigning, especially since the 1st Congressional District makes up only half of the smallest state. The district comprises only 19 municipalities so social media offers the ability to target fundraising ads to people who live in those cities and towns.

But Sheinin said social media ads are typically seen while scrolling in short bursts unlike television commercials that can sustain attention a bit longer.

Why go all in on spending?

Some may wonder, why are candidates spending this much money when whoever wins will have to run again in 2024?

Parker said, at least for Democrats, a special election primary is when candidates should really invest.

“For all intents and purposes, it is the general election,” Parker said. “Whoever comes out with the Democratic nomination is going to be the frontrunner for the general.”

And for whichever candidate ends up being the 1st Congressional District’s next representative, Parker said they get the advantage of running as an incumbent when re-election comes next year.

“If [voters] recognize the incumbent’s name and something positive they did, that gives them less of a reason to vote for an alternative,” Parker said.

This story was updated to include additional information on ad purchases by Don Carlson’s campaign.


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Christopher Shea
Christopher Shea

Christopher Shea covers politics, the criminal justice system and transportation for the Rhode Island Current.