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Analysis: More TV ads run in NC than any other election in the country

Turn on a television in North Carolina these days, and it’s only a matter of minutes before the bombardment begins.

They’re everywhere—advertisements endorsing and slamming candidates for the North Carolina U.S. Senate seat held by Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan. And unlike previous elections, the amount of ads being dumped on voters in the Tar Heel state is occurring at an unprecedented rate.

In the buildup to next month’s primary, North Carolina has become ground zero for an all-out ad war between national special interest groups, who are banking on 30-second commercials to have sway on both the May 6 contest and the November general election. The amount of spending made by outside groups is outpacing every previous mid-term election in history, and North Carolina leads the nation in both outside money being spent and dollars put toward political ads, according to a recent report by PBS News Hour.

So who’s behind the ads, and what impact will they have on voters across the state?

Trying to keep track of which groups have spent what amounts is nothing short of a daunting task, especially when the TV and radio spots show no sign of stopping.

“It’s a perfect set-up — a Democratic incumbent who seems vulnerable and a large Republican field,” said Chris Cooper, a professor of political science and public affairs at Western Carolina University. “And with North Carolina being a populous state, it’s going to mean big money. Both sides really want this seat.”

Earlier this month, the total amount spent on political air time statewide crossed the $10 million threshold — making the race one of the nation’s most expensive. And according to a recent Bloomberg report, more TV ads have been run in North Carolina so far than any other election in the country, with 12,900 commercials being aired through April 7.

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The bulk of spending has been carried out by a handful of PACs, super PACs and 501(c)(4) organizations. Many of the groups, including the conservative, Koch brothers-backed Americans For Prosperity, are not required to disclose donors or spending amounts to the Federal Election Commission because of their tax-exempt, nonprofit status. The group is estimated to have spent more than $7.2 million in ads attacking Hagan so far, according to the Washington Post.

For other right-leaning organizations, the involvement highlights a divide between those hoping to have an impact on the type of candidate who will have their name on the final ballot in November.

Thom Tillis, a leading Republican Senate candidate who has served as the state’s House Speaker since 2011, has gotten big support from groups including American Crossroads—a super PAC headed by former White House strategist Karl Rove.

Earlier this month, the group announced having secured $1.1 million worth of advertising time to support Tillis.

While attending an event in Henderson County last month, Tillis told Carolina Public Press that he took no issue with the amount of money that groups with interests far outside state lines would spend to sway the votes of North Carolina residents.

“It’s part of the process,” Tillis said. “I think if (organizations) are attempting to be honest in how they communicate the issues that it’s a positive thing. I think they need to be able to focus as they communicate. They need to point to the truth and why they take a different position on the issues. If you’re doing it to legitimately inform people about the issues so they can make an informed choice, I don’t think it’s a bad thing.”

Along with Tillis, candidates running for the GOP nomination include Jim Snyder, Edward Kyrn, Mark Harris, Heather Grant, Alex Lee Bradshaw, Greg Brannon and Ted Alexander.

Brannon, a Tea Party-affiliated candidate, has received backing from FreedomWorks, another prominent conservative 501(c)(4) organization.

View a debate among the candidates, hosted by WRAL, here.

For left-leaning groups, the focus has largely been on attacking GOP candidates, and stoking dissension between Republican ranks.

A recent ad put forward by Senate Majority PAC, whose interests are aligned with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, offered insight on Democrats’ strategy. The ad attempts to mar Tillis over his condoning and termination of two staffers who had conducted inappropriate relationships with lobbyists while working in his House office, is as much about forcing a runoff between the top two GOP finishers than it is about smearing a candidate who has yet to win his party’s nomination.

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The tactic of Democrats running attack ads in a Republican contest was similarly employed in the 2012 Missouri GOP primary, and helped secure a primary win for Todd Akin, a far-right candidate. Following his primary win, Akin went on to make controversial comments on “legitimate rape,” which would become a center point of the race and cost his party victory over U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. Heading into the election cycle that year, McCaskill, like Hagan now, had been largely viewed as vulnerable incumbent.

But while the purpose of an ad’s message can be easy to gauge, determining the impact of its influence on voters can be difficult—especially in a primary race.

Ken Fernandez, an assistant professor of political science at Elon University, said voters in primaries are often more up to speed and tend to settle on a candidate long before reaching the ballot box.

“The voter in a primary tends to be more informed,” Fernandez said. “They usually have a stronger ideological attachment to one particular candidate, party or faction. I think a lot of people who will turn out for the Republican primary on May 6 have probably already made up their mind.”

Fernandez added that the deluge of political advertising could have a silver lining by inspiring more voters to become about what’s happening in politics, and who the key players are in their state.

“A lot of people would argue that this is great for democracy,” he said. “You can’t hide from the ads. You’re going to see them. Some folks might tune out, but I think we might see record-breaking turnout for a primary. When you have a competitive race and record-breaking spending, that’s usually good for turnout.”

Early voting for the primary begins today. Election Day is May 6.

James Harrison

James Harrison is a contributing reporter with Carolina Public Press. Reach him at jharrison@carolinapublicpress.org.

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