What Can $3.7 Billion Buy? How About 2,969,370 Campaign Ads

Spending on next week's elections is approaching $4 billion, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. (Center for Responsive Politics)

Two new reports find that the House and Senate elections will cost about $3.7 billion — up just slightly from the past two election cycles — with outside groups buying their largest share yet of the television advertising.

The nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, in Washington, says candidates and political parties are spending less this cycle, while outside groups are spending more. Its report does not include spending that outside groups don't report to the Federal Election Commission. One prominent example is a months-long TV campaign against vulnerable Democratic senators by Americans for Prosperity, a 501(c)(4) social welfare group backed by industrialists David and Charles Koch. It and other nonprofits are allowed to keep their donors' names secret.

The Wesleyan Media Project, based at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, says next week's election has generated fewer TV ads — down 12 percent from 2010 for the fall campaign — while ad spending is up. That paradox traces back to the changing balance in spending between candidates and outside groups. Federal law gives candidates access to lowest-rate airtime. Outside groups must pay top dollar.

Between the congressional races and the even more costly contests for governor, the Wesleyan analysis puts ad spending this cycle at nearly $1.2 billion so far.

The most intense Senate races are in North Carolina and Iowa.

In North Carolina, Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan is battling the state's House speaker, Republican Thom Tillis. More than 20,000 ads aired in the two weeks ending Oct. 23, about 60 percent of them from Democrats and their allies. The Wesleyan report estimates the cost of the airtime at $13.7 million.

Iowa's open-seat race is not far behind: more than 17,000 ads, with Republicans having a slight edge, with an airtime cost of $6.5 million.

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