State Elections

Published — October 29, 2015 Updated — November 5, 2015 at 3:30 pm ET

How TV ads are shaping Tuesday’s election

A scene from a political ad sponsored by the Bluegrass Alliance for Consumer Rights attacks Republican attorney general candidate Whitney Westerfield for allegedly taking time off work to get a pedicure. More than $2 million in broadcast TV airtime has been spent on the race for the open seat ahead of Tuesday's election. Screenshot/ Bluegrass Alliance for Consumer Rights

10 things to know about the ad wars in the 2015 state races


Nov. 5, 2015: This story has been corrected.

Voters head to the polls Tuesday to decide major races in several states, while Louisiana gears up for its runoff election on Nov. 21 to determine its next governor and several other top offices.

Though overshadowed by the 2016 presidential contest, these state elections have generated thousands of television ads worth millions of dollars.

Who voters choose to represent them will have important consequences for Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Virginia. And voters will use ballot measures to decide important policy issues ranging from marijuana legalization in Ohio to campaign finance reform in Maine.

Here are 10 things to know about this year’s TV election ad wars:

  • More than $67 million has been spent to air TV ads about the 2015 elections for state candidates and ballot measures. The open Louisiana and Kentucky gubernatorial races to replace term-limited governors have been the most expensive contests: Kentucky’s race spawned more than $14 million in spending, while Louisiana has seen more than $11 million in gubernatorial ads. SHARE THIS FINDING:
  • Kentucky voters have been subjected to the most broadcast TV ads. If aired consecutively, it would take more than 19 days to watch them all. SHARE THIS FINDING:
  • Democratic candidates spent more on average for television airtime than Republicans in the 2015 state contests. SHARE THIS FINDING:
  • Outside groups ranging from the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity to the Humane Society account for a third of the money spent on TV airtime so far in the 2015 races. With fewer limits on fundraising thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and related cases, outside groups are growing more prominent in state elections. SHARE THIS FINDING:
  • More than half of the TV ad dollars spent in the 2015 races paid for messages that were at least somewhat negative, bashing opponents or comparing their records unfavorably to the ad backers’ preferred candidates. SHARE THIS FINDING:
  • In an effort to become Kentucky’s next governor, Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway and his running mate spent more on TV airtime than any other candidate this year — $3.4 million. Conway also benefited from about $2.6 million in supportive ads from Kentucky Family Values, a nonprofit backed by unions and the Democratic Governors Association. SHARE THIS FINDING:
  • In Louisiana’s governor race, Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter spent more than twice that of his Democratic rival, state Rep. John Bel Edwards, airing TV ads yet earned roughly half as many votes in Saturday’s primary. As the top two vote-getters, they are headed to a runoff vote on Nov. 21. Vitter has spent $2.5 million on TV airtime, while Edwards has spent just over $1 million. SHARE THIS FINDING:
  • Ohio’s vote on whether to legalize marijuana is the most expensive ballot measure this year in terms of TV ads. The group supporting the measure has spent an estimated $4.8 million on TV airtime; the group’s backers stand to profit if it passes. Opponents have spent nearly $300,000. SHARE THIS FINDING:
  • More than half of the ads for New Jersey’s General Assembly election came from the national Democrat-leaning super PAC named General Majority PAC. Most of its ads were negative in tone. SHARE THIS FINDING:
  • Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund, the gun control group backed by former New York City mayor and billionaire Michael Bloomberg, jumped into Virginia State Senate races in the past week with more than $640,000 in airtime purchases backing Democratic candidates. SHARE THIS FINDING:

Source: Center for Public Integrity analysis of Kantar Media/CMAG data current through Oct. 26.

Correction, Nov. 5, 2015, 3:27 p.m.: An earlier version of this story reported the incorrect amount that pro-pot advocates spent on TV airtime trying to pass a measure legalizing marijuana in Ohio. At the time, they had spent an estimated $4.8 million.

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