Raleigh, N.C. — Nasty. Expensive. Too close to call.
That pretty much sums up the state of play in North Carolina's gubernatorial campaign between Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, and Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat, with less than seven weeks to go until Election Day.
"This is, really, the biggest and the closest gubernatorial race in the country this year," said Andrew Taylor, a professor of political science at North Carolina State University.
Of the 12 governor's mansions up for grabs across the county, North Carolina has a mix of size, close polls and hotly contested issues that is attracting both outside attention and money.
Cooper, McCrory and their allies spent $5 million during the first three weeks of September on broadcast advertising alone, according to data provided to WRAL News by Kantar Media. That's about a third of the broadcast ad spending in the race since 2015.
Libertarian Lon Cecil is also in the race, but does not have the money for television advertisement and typically polls in the low-to-mid single digits.
"It's going to be one of those nip and tuck races," said Jennifer Duffy, a political analyst with the Cook Political Report, based in Washington, D.C.
She pointed out that other states with gubernatorial campaigns are in less expensive media markets and, in most cases, aren't quite as closely contested. That frees up money to flow to North Carolina.
Duffy points to a Wesleyan Media Project study that shows North Carolina easily outpacing other states both in terms of the volume of ads and how much money was spent on those spots this summer.
While campaigns certainly spend money on more than broadcast television – staff salaries, campaign mailers and cable television, among other expenses – it is the most expensive component of a statewide campaign and therefore a good proxy for overall relative spending.
Source: Kantar Media
So far, more than half of the ads aired in North Carolina's gubernatorial campaign have been negative, according to Kantar's metrics. In part, Taylor said, that's a reaction to the general mood of voters nationally, who are enduring a particularly vitriolic and contentious campaign season.
"It might seem a little jarring and out of touch to voters if you were to project too sunny and positive an image," Taylor said.
McCrory has split his ad buys between commercials meant to be positive, image-building messages and those in which he uses surrogates to attack Cooper, particularly over his management of the State Crime Lab.
Cooper's commercials have included one response to a McCrory attack but have focused lately on ads that use news footage to criticize the governor over House Bill 2, education funding and his handling of coal ash cleanup.
Taylor said that Cooper will likely have to put more positive ads on the air this fall.
"People sort of know what the case for McCrory is. I'm not saying they're buying it, but they know what it is," Taylor said.
Cooper is less well known and less well defined in the minds of voters, he said. "At some point, he's going to have to make the case for himself as an alternative."
Duffy has a different take. Cooper, she points out, has been a statewide office holder since 2000.
"You're not going to tell voters much they don't know, or think they know, about either of these candidates," she said.
That means the campaigns end up trying to "disqualify" their opponents through negative ads.
Source: Kantar Media
Those commercials are finding their way to a closely divided electorate. While a recent Elon University Poll put McCrory up by nearly 3 percentage points, a Public Policy Polling survey published Wednesday gave Cooper the advantage.
"Both candidates are running competitive and expensive campaigns, so it's likely that this race for governor will remain one of the closest in the country right up until voters head to the polls in November," said Jason Husser, director of the Elon University Poll.
As much as candidates will try to shape their own destinies on the stump and with television ads, they will also contend with factors beyond their control.
One of those factors will be the presidential campaign, in which both Republican nominee Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton are deeply unpopular with many voters.
For example, Taylor asked, "How does Trump's presence affect suburban, moderate Republicans who would be supportive of McCrory under other conditions?" If the presidential candidate's unpopularity suppresses voter turnout, rather than provoke ticket splitting, that could be a problem for McCrory if he's in a close race.
Duffy said this week's police shooting in Charlotte and the resulting violent protests could be a thorny issue for both McCrory and Cooper to navigate.
"Does this fire up voters? It's another field of land mines for both these candidates," she said.
Unlike in Missouri, where Democratic Attorney General Chris Koster was able to stay out of the troubles that followed a high-profile shooting during his gubernatorial campaign, Cooper likely won't be able to stay out of the fray in Charlotte.
That, Duffy said, could put him in trying to keep both important Democratic constituencies happy and not lose ground with law enforcement groups, which have mainly endorsed McCrory so far.
But the biggest factor state politics has been marinating in all year is House Bill 2, the controversial law dealing with the use of bathrooms by transgender individuals, LGBT rights and other areas of discrimination law.
That bill has attracted the attention of national campaigns, Duffy said, where Democrats see it as helping to make North Carolina a more attainable prize for Clinton.
"It has polarized voters, and I think it has probably raised interest in the election," Duffy said.
Results in the most recent Elon Poll showed respondents roughly split into thirds between those more likely to vote for McCrory because of his handling of House Bill 2, those less likely to back the governor over the law and those for whom it made no difference.
The real danger to McCrory, argues Taylor, is that the headlines generated by the likes of the NCAA and the Atlantic Coast Conference pulling tournaments from the state indicate North Carolina is suffering economic harm from the law. While the total losses might be small compared to North Carolina's overall economy, he said, people see the headline numbers and get concerned.
Meanwhile, McCrory is trying to sell his campaign message of a "Carolina Comeback" in which the state's economy is improving.
"It undercuts the governor's argument about being a prudent economic manager," Taylor said.