LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Little Rock friends Mike Thomas and Jack Evans don't support the same candidate in the nationally watched U.S. Senate race here, but they certainly agree on what to do when the contenders' ads start pouring out of the television.
"I grab the remote," said Thomas, a retired schoolteacher who's supporting Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor's bid for re-election. "I change it to the SEC Network," said Evans, a backer of GOP challenger Tom Cotton, referring to the college football channel.
Although politics has always been fiercely contested sport in Arkansas, the state has been especially hard hit this year by an ad blitz focused on the state's Senate race and, to a lesser extent, the governor's office.
With campaign treasuries overflowing and Arkansas' small-market airtime cheap, the Senate candidates, political parties and independent groups have run more than 38,000 ads since early last year, amounting to roughly $7 per voter in the nation's 32nd largest state, according to an Associated Press analysis of federal records and data compiled by the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity and the ad tracking service Kantar Media/CMAG. That's about double the per-voter spending in the most expensive Senate races in Georgia and in North Carolina.
"There are some states that are seeing as many ads, but I don't think there's any that are seeing any more ads," said Travis Ridout, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks spending on political ads.
The barrage started more than a year ago as Republicans identified the race as a possible key to winning control of the Senate. (The top targets are a half dozen Democratically-held seats in states that lean Republican.)
As the election approaches, the ads are now so thick that they are interfering with an Arkansas rite of fall: watching football.
Residents and businesses are struggling to adapt. At Gusano's, a downtown Little Rock restaurant and bar with 21 television sets, the staff automatically mutes the sound during commercial breaks to keep the ads from running off the assembled Razorbacks fans.
"They just annoy people so bad that we had to come up with a solution," owner Tim Chappell said. "The mood of the people just changes so much when they're on."
On any given day, voters can be targeted with a dozen different commercials, each running scores of times. There are positive ones: Pryor standing in front of an American flag and talking about his jobs legislation; Cotton defending his record on Social Security as he unpacks groceries with his mom.
And there are negative ones, which have produced some memorable advertising moments: Pryor's ad indirectly connecting Cotton to the Ebola outbreak by criticizing his vote against pandemic response programs in Congress. And a Club for Growth ad against Pryor that ended with the image of a parrot defecating on the New York Times.
The candidates agree that the onslaught is excessive. But it won't stop.
Of residents' complaints, "I just hear that from pretty much every quadrant of the state," said Pryor, who was first targeted by TV ads in early 2013. "This is the reality of living in a super PAC world. Arkansas has never seen anything like this."
Sometimes the only break between the ads for Senate candidates has been the ads for the governor's candidates, Mike Ross and Asa Hutchinson, or for the two open U.S. House seats.
"My mute button is getting a lot of wear and tear," said Kent Hyde, a life insurance agent from Little Rock.
Even the Internet isn't safe.
"You can't even watch a YouTube video on Elvis Presley without a Mark Pryor ad popping up," complained Gary Briggs, a retired telecommunications sales director.
Cotton says he's concentrating on connecting with people on the campaign trail, where "voters want to talk about the issues that are important to them."
Political analysts say the campaigns' tit-for-tat advertising tactics make it difficult for either candidate to score points.
"It's because these campaigns are so quick to respond that the result is pretty much an impasse on the air," said Jay Barth, a political science professor at Hendrix College in Conway.
But even if most voters are avoiding them, the ads help mobilize the candidates' supporters, said Clint Reed, a Republican strategist.
"These ads keep the bases really motivated and keep the volunteers inspired to go make phone calls and knock doors," he said.
Associated Press Writer Philip Elliott contributed to this report from Washington
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