LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — No, dear voter, it wasn't a dream. If you sat down in front of a television in Arkansas lately, you really did see that many political ads.
Some of you might even argue the final days of this election season have been a nightmare.
"There is so much negative advertising from the politicians that I don't know what they do stand for," said Jason Mizell, who cast an early ballot Friday at a Little Rock library.
And not just in Arkansas. Across the country, in the first election since both parties fully embraced the new world of campaign finance created by Supreme Court decisions, including Citizens United, the television ads during the campaign's final hours were practically nothing but politics.
Total federal spending was expected to reach the $4 billion mark, pushing these midterm elections to record levels. Deep-pocketed donors funneled millions to outside groups, which in many races accounted for more than two-thirds of the spending in competitive races.
In the 10 most expensive Senate races, nine have more than a dozen outside groups paying for ads. In eight of the 12 most expensive races, outside groups spent more than the actual people on the ballots did.
For instance, the most expensive race for Senate in the nation had topped the $108 million mark by Monday. Of that, $76 million was coming from outside groups trying to shape the outcome of Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan's re-election bid in North Carolina against Republican state House Speaker Thom Tillis.
As here in Arkansas, much of that cash came in the form of television ads that left voters overloaded.
"I've seen enough of them to last me a lifetime," said 74-year-old retiree Bert Cole, who cast his ballot early in Jonesboro. "I just hit the mute button and let them do their talking."
The pricey race in Arkansas between Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor and Republican Rep. Tom Cotton, as well as two competitive House contests and one for a soon-to-be-open governor's office, filled the air between Little Rock's television programs with enough ads this past weekend so that, theoretically, every targeted voter would see 34 political commercials a day.
Holding Pryor's seat is crucial to Democrats' hopes of keeping their majority in the Senate. Should Republicans win here and pick up five seats elsewhere, they'll have control of the chamber for the first time since Democrats prevailed in the 2006 election.
It's why the Democrats' biggest super PAC, Senate Majority PAC, has spent at least $5.5 million on the Arkansas race. In all, the group, which has ties to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, has unleashed $47.1 million to keep Democrats in control of the chamber.
The Karl Rove-backed network of American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS has spent at least $4.6 million in Arkansas, part of the $46.7 million in spending it reported to the Federal Election Commission through Monday afternoon.
In all, more than 500 outside groups had reported federal spending from Alaska to Florida.
That's why escaping politics on TV was next to impossible just about anywhere with a competitive race on Tuesday's ballot.
In North Carolina, candidates and their allies have spent $62 million to run almost 102,000 ads this campaign season. Georgia has seen almost $43 million in ads, running some 65,000 times. And Kentucky has seen at least 79,000 ads at a cost of $34 million, according to an analysis from the Center for Public Integrity, using the widely accepted estimates from media tracking firm Kantar/CMAG.
In all, Pryor, Cotton and their supporters in Arkansas have spent more than $26 million to bombard viewers with roughly 60,000 messages. More than $56 million has been spent overall on the race.
Campaigns' last-minute efforts to find airtime guaranteed the total costs would spike at the end.
Last week, Pryor spotted an available 30-second spot during "The Voice" and shelled out the $4,400 station KARK demanded. Days later, Cotton bought a $15,000 ad during Saturday's 5 p.m. broadcast at the same station. And Fox's Little Rock affiliate KLRT charged Senate Majority PAC $11,000 for one spot during Sunday's NFL game.
As the election gets closer, airtime becomes scarcer and prices go up. Many of the political groups planned ahead, but those that did not find themselves paying a premium.
The House Democrats' campaign committee in the spring asked stations to set aside $1.5 million in ad time in the Little Rock area to saturate the market for five weeks. Months later, the Karl Rove-backed American Crossroads spent the same amount but got just one-third the airtime.
The National Rifle Association came in even later and paid $1 million. That sum was worth just one week of ads.
It's all too much for Fayetteville resident Geron Vail, who says that when a campaign ad comes on his TV, "I flip."
The ads, which he describes as "sad," are even pestering the 55-year-old when he sits down at his computer.
"You can't even click on a website without getting it," Vail said. "You have to wait through 15 seconds before you can even watch something on YouTube."
Elliott reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Kelly P. Kissel in Little Rock contributed to this report.
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