WASHINGTON - With seven months to go before the general election, Arkansas’ airwaves have already been blanketed with thousands of ads trying to define two candidates seeking the state’s U.S. Senate seat.
National political parties and special-interest groups have particular interest in the race between incumbent Democrat Mark Pryor and Republican U.S. Rep.Tom Cotton. Republicans have targeted the seat as one they need to reclaim majority control in the Senate.
Each candidate has spent more than $100,000 on television ads, and outside groups have spent millions on thousands of television, radio and Internet ads.
“Outside groups” broadly refers to super PACs and politically active nonprofits. Those groups cannot coordinate with political parties or candidates, but they can accept unlimited contributions.
Ads from outside groups tend to be more negative.
Political action group Americans for Prosperity, based in Arlington, Va., advocates for conservatives and has run ads showing Arkansans who it says were harmed by the president’s health-care law, which Pryor supports.
Nonprofit group Patriot Majority USA, based in Washington, D.C., which advocates for Democrats, has run ads accusing Cotton of putting his national ambitions ahead of Arkansas voters.
Several ads by the candidates have been biographical. Pryor ran an ad in December about his faith, calling the Bible his “North Star.” That month the Cotton campaign ran ads with Cotton’s mother, Avis Cotton, talking about her son’s military service.
According to campaign-finance data compiled by the Sunlight Foundation, 11 groups have spent a combined $2.4 million opposing Pryor and Cotton, so far. Slightly more than $1.4 million has been spent opposing Cotton. About $960,000 has been spent opposing Pryor, according to data from the foundation - a nonpartisan, nonprofit that tracks campaign contributions.
The outside groups are less likely to spend money on ads supporting the candidates. Cotton has benefited from $185,354 in ads, most purchased by U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio’s Reclaim America PAC. The ad talks about Cotton’s military experience.
Washington State University government professor Travis Ridout said showing so many negative ads so far from election day can cause voters to stop paying attention.
“In October and November when they are running those same messages and we’ve already heard them, we’ve already internalized them and so they’re just not going to have an impact down the road,” he said.
But, Ridout said, the ads can define the public perception of a candidate “so you can build upon those negative impressions down the road. There can be some real advantages of it and some real risks as well.”
Ridout is also co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracked all political ads aired in the United States in 2010 and 2012.
With the onslaught of ads, it can be hard for campaigns to counter negative or misleading information, Ridout said.
“It’s very hard to combat that, especially if there is a grain of truth in the statement they’re making, and usually there is a grain of truth,” Ridout said.
Pryor Deputy Campaign Manager Erik Dorey said voters tune out the ads that don’t come from candidates.
Dorey said the campaign isn’t worried about outside groups defining how voters see Pryor.
The millions spent by the groups “has been largely money down the drain because Arkansas voters know Sen. Pryor,” he said. “We’re not in the business of defending or discrediting ads from outside groups.”
Cotton campaign spokesman David Ray said the campaign will challenge the ads.
“It’s important that voters know whether or not the claims in these ads are true,” Ray said.
“When Mark Pryor gets on the air and lies about Tom Cotton or when Mark Pryor’s Washington allies get on the air and lie about Tom Cotton you can bet that we’re going to push back.”
Ridout said ads are hitting the airwaves earlier this cycle though. “It does strike me as quite early for something like this to be going on.”
Ridout said the 2012 presidential election may have set the stage for early ads in battleground states like Arkansas. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney saved his money and ran a lot of ads at the end of the race, while President Barack Obama spent his money early and tried to define Romney, Ridout said.
“Obama’s strategy worked out better,” Ridout said. “One lesson from 2012 is you need to front-load, you need to define your opponent, you need to knock them down early on.”
Pryor, who is seeking his third term, has been a part of Arkansas politics for decades. His father, David Pryor, was a U.S. senator and Arkansas governor.
Cotton, an Army veteran and Harvard graduate, had no political experience before running for the U.S. House in 2012.
Ridout said outside groups may also be pouring money in early because control of the Senate is at stake.
“There’s so much money out there this year, and I think most observers agree that control of the Senate is about a 50-50 chance that it’ll change,” Ridout said. “That gives extra impetus to put your money in those races.”
Ridout said other battleground states are seeing cluttered airwaves, as well.
“My impression is that this is not an Arkansas-only phenomenon. These groups are involved in all of those close races,” Ridout said.
In Kentucky - where Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell faces an opponent in the Republican primary and a Democrat in the general election - outside groups have spent $2.3 million opposing candidates, according to the data from the Sunlight Foundation.
In North Carolina, where U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, a Democrat, faces a tough race, outside groups have spent $1.9 million opposing candidates. And in Louisiana, where U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, is being targeted, outside groups have already spent $1.3 million opposing candidates.
PLETHORA OF ADS
The Federal Communications Commission is gradually requiring television stations in the largest markets in the nation to publish information online about political advertising, but Arkansas isn’t a large enough market and its stations are exempt under the current rules. The only way to obtain the information in the state is to visit each station and view the publicly accessible files.
Records obtained from six major networks serving the Little Rock area show that more than $2 million has been spent on television ads so far on the city’s television stations. Complete records from television stations in other areas of the state weren’t available Friday, but data at stations that include KAIT in Jonesboro, KNWA in Fayetteville and KFTA in Fort Smith show that outside groups have spent thousands on ads in those communities.
Including ads for other races - such as the Arkansas governor’s race - Little Rock stations KATV, KTHV, KARK, KLRT, CW and KARZ have broadcast 4,017 political ads since August.
Five outside groups have spent more than $100,000 on television ads in the U.S. Senate race, so far. Patriot Majority USA has spent the most, $303,975 for 524 commercials opposing Cotton. Americans for Prosperity has spent the second-most, $274,407 for 509 commercials opposing Pryor.
Pryor and Cotton’s campaigns have spent hundreds of thousands on television ads, paying extra to have ads run during popular shows or events.
Since October, Cotton’s campaign has spent $151,065 for 314 time slots, including ads that ran during Sunday football games and Saturday Night Live, two ads that ran during the Golden Globes on Jan. 12 and four ads that ran on New Year’s Eve.
Since August, Pryor’s campaign has spent $283,765 for 580 time slots, including ads that ran during The Voice and five 30-second ads that ran during the Winter Olympics.
Information for this article was contributed by Kenneth Heard and Bill Bowden of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.