How Major League Baseball Could Determine Control of Congress (Updated)

Posted September 8, 2014 at 10:01am
How Major League Baseball Could Determine Control of Congress
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, left, speaks with Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper at Nationals Park. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Updated Sept. 9, 1:14 p.m. | For most of the country, this October’s television airwaves are filled with two things: baseball and politics — and the two rarely mix.

But the mid-autumn climax of Major League Baseball could impact the Senate playing field in key states where teams are primed to make the playoffs. Televised sports make for a desirable market for political advertisers because viewers are more likely to watch live and are less likely to fast-forward through commercials.

What’s more, the target audience watching these sports — mostly white and male — comprise one of the most reliable voting blocs in a midterm. For Republicans, baseball viewing marks an opportunity to motivate their base. Democrats gear their in-game ads toward improving their numbers with this demographic.

From interviews with media buyers and political operatives, it’s clear there are several markets with top baseball teams and competitive congressional races that could collide between the playoffs in early October and Election Day.

Of course, things can change before then: Teams, just like campaigns, can flop. But based on MLB standings as of Tuesday, here are the prime markets to play ball and politics.

The Nationals: Washington, D.C., media market
Competitive races: Virginia Senate race, 10th District

The Nats have an eight-game lead in the National League East. Washington, D.C.-based media buyers are reluctantly superstitious to label their local team a sure bet for postseason play, but they telegraph that it’s likely.

Politically, this gives Senate candidates a chance to compete for northern Virginia votes.

Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat, is likely to win his race, but he must run up the vote in northern Virginia to do so. Similarly, the Old Dominion features a competitive House race, the campaign to replace retiring Republican Rep. Frank R. Wolf in the same area.

The Tigers:
Detroit media market
Competitive races: Michigan Senate and gubernatorial races, Detroit-area House races

The Tigers are neck and neck with the Kansas City Royals for the American League Central Division title. The runner-up in that contest will also be in the hunt for a wild-card spot.

One media buyer called the Tigers the only “slam dunk” on the map right now: a combination of a strong team mixed with a wealth of political races in the same market.

The gubernatorial race is the highest-profile contest in the state. The Senate race to replace retiring Sen. Carl Levin, a Democrat, is on the cusp of being competitive.

“I don’t know if, by the time when the playoffs roll around, that race will still be on people’s radar,” a GOP media buyer said.

There are a handful of races in the Detroit area, but they are all ranked in Republican favor in the Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call ratings.

The Royals:
Kansas City media market
Competitive races: Kansas Senate, gubernatorial races

The Royals are in first place for the American League Central Division title.

Politically, media buyers are keeping a close eye on this market as Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s re-election race becomes increasingly competitive.

But also, Sen. Pat Roberts is now “the most vulnerable Republican senator” on the map, provided his Democratic opponent stays off the ballot.

“I still don’t believe those are real races, but there’s definitely going to be some money spent there,” the Republican media buyer said.

The Braves: Atlanta media market
Competitive races: Georgia Senate

The Braves are possibly the weakest team on this list, coming in at third place in the wild-card race. But it’s still possible for Atlanta’s team to gut it out for the postseason.

Which means the Democrat nominee, Michelle Nunn, and the Republican nominee, David Perdue, could jump on the baseball airwaves in this open-seat race for Senate.

The Cardinals:
St. Louis media market
Competitive races: Illinois gubernatorial race, Iowa Senate, a couple House races in both states

The St. Louis Cardinals have a four and one-half-game lead in the National League Central Division.

Missouri is reasonably quiet politically this cycle, and so the most obvious political spending is market spillover into the Illinois gubernatorial race. There’s a competitive race to oust Rep. Bill Enyart, D-Ill., also in this market.

Even so, the Cardinals have wide regional appeal — including into Iowa.

“People are more preferential to the Cardinals than the Cubs in the Midwest,” a Democratic media buyer said.

There is some disagreement among media buyers whether baseball is a good investment for western Illinois House races — the 12th and the 13th districts — given the high cost of St. Louis advertising rates.

The Dodgers:
Los Angeles cable market
Competitive races: California’s 26th District

The Dodgers are in first place in the National League West Division.

Freshman Democratic Rep. Julia Brownley is in political trouble and her race could be one of the closest in the country come October.

While Los Angeles is traditionally a cost-prohibitive television market, one avenue to exploit baseball is to commit to geographically targeted cable advertising during the early phase of the playoff season if Dodgers games air on TBS.

The A’s/the Giants:
Sacramento, Calif., media market
Competitive races: California’s 7th District

Both the A’s and the Giants are in first place for their league’s wild-card spots. Sacramento, about an hour and a half away from both Oakland and San Francisco, is a notoriously wild market in politics.

Freshman Rep. Ami Bera is in a tough race for re-election. Media buyers predict that if either team does well, it would be safe to assume there are fans in the Golden State’s capital.

Where Campaigns Won’t Be Spending on Baseball: Denver

If there was any team that would have produced a financial windfall for the media consultant community, that would be the Colorado Rockies. The already pricey Denver market will feature the triple whammy of Senate, gubernatorial and House race advertising.

Alas, for operatives and Coloradans, the Rockies are the second-worst team in baseball, behind the Texas Rangers.

Nathan L. Gonzales contributed to this report.