The following article first appeared on The New York Times, written by Ashley Parker.
WASHINGTON — An explosion of spending on political advertising on television — set to break $2 billion in congressional races, with overall spots up nearly 70 percent since the 2010 midterm election — is accelerating the rise of moneyed interests and wresting control from the candidates’ own efforts to reach voters.
In the first full midterm cycle where outside groups have developed a sophisticated infrastructure, the consequences are already becoming apparent: a harshly negative tone dictated by the groups and a nearly nonstop campaign season that could cause voters to tune out before Election Day.
“They have become a shadow party that’s effectively impossible to dislodge, and they will shape, if not control, the dialogue in key races and therefore nationally,” said Sheila Krumholz, the executive director for the Center for Responsive Politics. “All of this sets the stage for 2016.”
The phenomenon, which is playing out in races across the country, is particularly pronounced in several competitive Senate contests — in places like Alaska, Colorado and North Carolina, among others. In the Senate races alone, the number of political television spots from outside groups is nearly six times as much as it was at the same point in the 2010 cycle. In fact, more political ads from outside groups have already aired during the relatively slow summer period of the 2014 Senate contests — roughly 150,000 spots through mid-July — than ran throughout the entire 2010 Senate elections.
The totals are based on a New York Times analysis of data through mid-July provided by Kantar Media/CMAG, which tracks political advertising.
Spending from outside groups has been on a swift ascent since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010, in which it ruled that the First Amendment prohibited the government from restricting political independent expenditures by corporations and other groups. There are no indications that this trajectory will change. The impact can be especially magnified during midterm elections because outside groups are not distracted by a presidential race and can allocate even greater resources to single congressional contests. In many cases, candidates in individual districts, or even states, are no match financially for groups that oppose their politics.
The outside groups are dictating the terms and message of the 2014 contests, defining candidates long before the candidates are able to define themselves and start reaching voters.
“It makes it harder for the campaign to control the message,” said Will Feltus, senior vice president for research and planning at National Media Inc., a Republican media-buying company. “Somebody else can set the message agenda for the campaign.”
The top three outside groups alone — Americans for Prosperity, Senate Majority PAC, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — have already spent a combined more than $80 million in congressional races. Americans for Prosperity, backed by the conservative billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, has spent $44 million on House and Senate races. Senate Majority PAC, which supports Democratic Senate candidates, has spent more than $22 million on Senate races, and the Chamber of Commerce has spent up to $17 million on House and Senate races.
Unlike in 2010, Democrats, who assailed the impact of Citizens United, have joined in the political arms race. In addition to Senate Majority PAC, three other Democratic groups — House Majority PAC, Patriot Majority USA, and Put Alaska First PAC — are all among the top groups in terms of overall spots aired, with roughly $36 million already spent between the four groups, according to a Democratic campaign strategist who monitors media buys. The strategist spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the numbers.
“By November, swing voters won’t know whether they’re voting for a Republican or saving themselves 15 percent or more on car insurance,” said Will Ritter, co-founder of Poolhouse Digital, a Republican ad firm.
In Colorado — a battleground state that had a fierce Democratic Senate primary in 2010 and where a competitive general election race is now unfolding — the increase in spots by outside groups has been striking, more than quadrupling from the same point in 2010. The number of outside groups has also increased, from three in 2010 to eight this cycle.
Senator Mark Udall, Democrat of Colorado, and Democratic outside groups there have been laserlike in their effort to paint his opponent, Representative Cory Gardner, as “too extreme” on women’s issues like reproductive rights. In one Senate Majority PAC ad, images of women flash by as a narrator intones that Mr. Gardner would push “to outlaw a women’s right to choose, even in cases of rape and incest.”
The female narrator continues: “Worse, Gardner tried to redefine rape to mean only ‘forcible rape.’ Cory Gardner’s just too extreme.”
North Carolina, meanwhile, has emerged as the most expensive state this season. More than $33 million has already poured into the Senate race there, 90 percent of it from outside groups, according to the Democratic strategist.
The increase in outside group spots in North Carolina has been particularly stark, up nearly 100 times from 257 at this point in 2010 to more than 25,000 spots this cycle. The state did not have a competitive race in 2010; now it has one of the most contested races of the cycle. Viewers in Charlotte are swimming in political ads, with more than 8,000 spots already on the air.
Many of those ads, and others aired around the country, have targeted lawmakers who supported the Affordable Care Act, passed in 2010. Americans for Prosperity, for instance, went up with its first campaign ad right after Labor Day of 2013, and one of its stated goals is to force vulnerable incumbent Democrats to defend their vote for President Obama’s signature health care law.
“They can now be held accountable even four or five years after a particularly bad vote like Obamacare, and this very well may be unprecedented to see Senate and House incumbents predominantly having to defend a vote that occurred four years ago,” said Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity.
Well-funded groups like Americans for Prosperity and Senate Majority PAC “have the ability to change the landscape,” said Elizabeth Wilner, the head of Kantar Media/CMAG. “They can go on early when the candidates can’t, they can be up over the summer when the candidates have to spend time fund-raising, they’re always ready, they’re always on, and they can basically snap their fingers and go up on air.”
It is also easier for outside groups and “super PACs” to run attack ads, leaving the positive message up to the candidates, and the result is an increasingly negative sheen to the general political discourse. “There’s no question that the sheer number of ads, combined with the fact that voters don’t know who’s paying for the ad, creates a layer of toxicity in our politics that is very corrosive,” said Senator Michael Bennet, Democrat of Colorado and chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
That portends a presidential campaign season when the first ads might well start soon after this November’s election, two years before votes are cast.
“What the proliferation of outside money has done is make sure there is no end to the campaign season, so the campaign season is now 365 days a year,” said Ty Matsdorf, the campaign director for Senate Majority PAC. “That’s just the reality of the system now.”
Now, both campaigns and outside groups are worrying about how to reach voters who, so inundated with ads already, may disengage in the crucial months before Election Day. A premium, they said, will be placed on creative commercials that cut through the clutter, as well as using data and analytics to target critical voters and get them to vote.
“The irony is that the more political ads air on TV, the more voters tune them out,” said Mark McKinnon, a veteran Republican strategist and ad maker. “It just becomes a white noise. The return on investment is absurd.”