Buying the Senate 2014

Published — October 23, 2014

North Carolina’s state of political hate

Tar Heels are enduring the nation’s greatest number of negative U.S. Senate election ads


Editor’s note: The Center for Public Integrity is tracking political advertising in races for the U.S. Senate and state-level offices. Use these two, interactive features — with new data every Thursday — to see who is calling the shots and where the money is being spent.

Congratulations, North Carolina: You’ve become the year’s great state of political hate.

Tar Heels last week endured more than 10,800 U.S. Senate election-focused TV ads that featured at least some content that tarred and feathered either incumbent Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan or Republican challenger Thom Tillis.

That’s more than one negative TV ad every minute from Tuesday, Oct. 14 to Monday, Oct. 20, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of preliminary data from Kantar Media/CMAG, an ad tracking firm.

No other U.S. Senate race — even the bitter contests in Kentucky, Iowa and Georgia — has experienced such sustained vitriol during the 2014 election cycle.

More than a dozen different political committees, super PACs and politically active nonprofit groups contributed to North Carolina’s hostility parade, which Hagan and Tillis themselves helped marshal in conjunction with their national party committee allies.

In all, the Hagan campaign and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee combined last week to produce more than 4,300 TV ads that either overtly attacked Tillis or negatively contrasted him with Hagan, the analysis of Kantar Media/CMAG data indicates.

She’s even aired ads about ads: One Hagan spot slams Tillis for one of his own attack ads, with the senator saying Tillis should be “ashamed” of himself for his “outrageous” assertions about her record on military issues.

Tillas and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, meanwhile, aired about 2,900 anti-Hagan TV ads during the same seven days.

Among other top negative advertisers: the pro-Hagan American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees’ political arm (1,165 TV ads), pro-Tillis nonprofit Crossroads GPS (815), and pro-Hagan Environmental Defense Action Fund (609).

Just two-dozen of the more than 10,800 Senate race-focused TV ads that ran last week in North Carolina had a positive tone.

Since last year, North Carolina voters have been presented with more than 90,000 ads trying to influence their vote ahead of the upcoming Senate election, and it appears that number will exceed 100,000 before the Nov. 4 vote.

That leads all U.S. Senate races and may help make North Carolina’s Senate race the most expensive in history.

“People just want it to be over,” said Thomas Mills, who publishes political commentary and analysis website “Other than watching the World Series playoffs, I haven’t even been watching any broadcast television.”

Added Mary Klenz, advocacy chairwoman for the League of Women Voters of North Carolina: “People are fed up. They’re disgusted. They’re not happy. We have always felt pretty positive, encouraged and engaged here, and then this onslaught comes, and people are just trying to catch their breath.”

Neither the Tillis nor the Hagan campaigns responded to requests for comment — although Hagan campaign manager Preston Elliott on Wednesday emailed supporters asking for money while lamenting, “You can’t watch a football game down here without seeing an ad.”

North Carolina’s Senate race — early voting there begins today — wasn’t alone last week in its rank negativity.

In Georgia, just 5 percent of TV ads in the Senate race featuring Republican David Perdue and Democrat Michelle Nunn contained positive messages. Nunn’s own campaign produced far more negative ads — more than 2,300 — than Perdue or any other political committee or politically active nonprofit group.

Kansas’ U.S. Senate race, where incumbent Sen. Pat Roberts, a Republican, is battling against independent challenger Greg Orman, proved to be equally negative in its TV messaging.

Only 9 percent of the more than 8,300 TV ads last week in Iowa’s Senate race were positive. There, Republican Joni Ernst is locked in a bitter fight against Democrat Bruce Braley.

New Hampshire’s TV ad positivity rate last week — 28 percent — hardly seems laudable.

But consider that the week before last, 8 percent of ads featured a positive tone, with incumbent Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen in particular hammering Republican challenger Scott Brown on his record as a politician in Massachusetts.

For the third week in a row, with more than 800 ads, WMUR-TV 9 in New Hampshire last week led all stations nationwide in the number of Senate-focused ads aired.

Across all U.S. Senate contests last week, about 18 percent of the more than 75,000 TV ads aired contained content with a positive tone, the analysis of Kantar Media/CMAG shows.

More than 60 percent are bona fide attack ads, with the remainder containing mix of positive and negative messages.

Republicans must pick up six U.S. Senate seats this election in order to win a majority.

Read more in Money and Democracy

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