By Tim Reid
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Maria Jones used to enjoy watching television - until November's midterm elections invaded her living room.
For months, Jones has been bombarded with political ads, up to 25 a day, by her count. She lives in suburban Phoenix in Maricopa County, the most populated county in Arizona, where elections for state and national office are often won or lost. Arizona has competitive races for governor and the U.S. Senate this November that could not only determine control of Congress, but the future of American democracy.
Jones, 53, a Democrat, said the advertising blitz is driving her crazy. "It frustrates me," the retired Air Force veteran said. "That's a lot of money that can be funneled to other organizations that need it."
Spending on political ads this cycle is set to reach nearly $10 billion by Election Day on Nov. 8, a record for any U.S. election. That's more than double the amount spent during the 2018 congressional elections, and even surpasses the record $9 billion spent in the 2020 presidential election, according to the tracking firm AdImpact. (Graphic: https://tmsnrt.rs/3dZghov)
GRAPHIC-U.S. election spending forecast to hit new record, https://graphics.reuters.com/USA-ELECTION/ADVERTISING/jnpwemgzypw/chart.png More than 2 million ads, at a cost of nearly $1 billion, have aired on broadcast television alone in federal and gubernatorial races nationwide between January 2021 and August this year, according to the Wesleyan Media Project, a nonpartisan group tracking televised political advertising.
Arizona will see about $600 million spent on political ads this year, according to AdImpact. Only Pennsylvania, California and Illinois are expected to exceed that.
"The stakes are very high this year," said Travis Ridout, a co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project.
That's not just because control of the 50-50 U.S. Senate is on a knife edge, he said. Many supporters of former Republican President Donald Trump, who echo his false claims that the 2020 election was stolen, are running for positions that would put them in charge of administering elections and certifying vote counts in the 2024 presidential race.
In Arizona, Republican candidates for governor, secretary of state and attorney general - all key positions in running the state's elections - have been telling voters the 2020 result was fraudulent.
The U.S. Senate race in Arizona pits Trump-endorsed candidate Blake Masters against Democratic incumbent Mark Kelly, a contest that could decide control of the upper chamber.
Jones said she was also inundated with ads in 2020, but most of those were either for or against Trump. This year, the ads cover a dizzying array of issues, from immigration, healthcare costs and inflation to abortion, social security and the hiring of more tax-collecting agents.
Jones said many of the commercials are attacks ads: Republicans hammering Democratic candidates over inflation and President Joe Biden's job performance, and Democrats lambasting calls by some Republicans for a federal abortion ban following the Supreme Court's decision to overturn the right to abortion nationwide.
Democrats have also aired more positive ads about themselves in key Senate races, including Arizona, according to AdImpact. Most are incumbents and, without internal party nominating contests to worry about, they have had the airwaves to themselves for months, building up their own profiles.
Polling suggests these positive ads have had an impact. Democratic candidates in Senate races such as Arizona, Georgia and Nevada have better favorability ratings than their Republican opponents. In Arizona there have been $12 million worth of positive ads run for Kelly compared to $6 million of negative ads, according to AdImpact.
"By starting earlier with positive ads, Democrats have more time to build their case and convince the public they have solutions," said Brian Franklin, president of political consultancy firm Impact Politics.
"ADS DO WORK"
Karen Finney, a veteran Democratic strategist, said voter focus groups have shown over many years that while people complain about the ads, they are effective.
"The old adage is - if they didn't work, we wouldn't use them," Finney said. "Ads are often voters' main source of information and they retain that information, especially with repetition. And with all the disinformation being used now, positive ads are important to establish a core message around a candidate to withstand those attacks."
Jones, who kept a diary of the ads for a few days, has seen them on Court TV, the local news, travel programs, and on streaming platforms such as Hulu and Tubi. She also gets political flyers in her mailbox, and text messages on her phone asking for campaign donations.
In a sign of how outside groups, some with no need to disclose donors, are beginning to surpass traditional party organizations in fundraising and spending, only two of the top 10 spenders in the Arizona Senate race this year are the official Republican and Democratic Senate political committees.
Many of the ads are funded by outside groups such as Senate Majority PAC, an independent Super PAC that is spending millions of dollars in support of Democratic candidates. It has attacked Masters over previous statements he has made in support of a federal abortion ban, a position he changed last week.
Another outside group, Saving Arizona PAC, is a single-issue PAC - getting Masters elected to the Senate - and is almost entirely funded by one man, tech billionaire Peter Thiel, Masters' former boss.
Venture capitalist Thiel has donated more than $15 million to the Saving Arizona PAC since April 2021, according to federal finance campaign data analyzed by OpenSecrets, a non-profit, nonpartisan group that tracks money in U.S. politics.
Saving Arizona has spent more than $10 million in media buys attacking Masters' Republican primary opponents and now Kelly, according to OpenSecrets.
Jones thinks wealthy donors and political groups would be better off spending less money on campaign ads and more on what she views as more important issues, including improving city services and trying to house the homeless.
"I don't really care for them," she said of the ads. "There are a lot of them. It just kind of upsets me."
(Reporting by Tim Reid, additional reporting by Liliana Salgado in Peoria, Arizona, editing by Ross Colvin and Alistair Bell)