Raleigh, N.C. — Between Jan. 1 and Sunday, candidates and others hoping to influence the U.S. Senate race spent more than $6 million in North Carolina, according to data provided to WRAL News by Kantar Media.
That data doesn't count money spent by Americans for Prosperity, a conservative nonprofit, in 2013 that were critical of Sen. Kay Hagan's support for the Affordable Care Act or other spenders who aired ads on behalf of Hagan in 2013. But it does reflect the campaign on the airwaves, in which House Speaker Thom Tillis and his allies have focused their attacks on Hagan rather than on other Republicans, and Hagan has responded in kind by treating Tillis as her de facto opponent.
The other leading Republican candidates, Rev. Mark Harris of Charlotte and Dr. Greg Brannon of Cary, have been largely ignored by outside spenders. Still, it is possible either Brannon or Harris could draw enough votes to keep Tillis from earning 40 percent of the primary vote and call for a July 15 runoff.
Barring that, said Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College, voters should prepare for an intensified onslaught of ads.
"We will most likely see the fall campaign start, if we have a Republican nominee, on Wednesday," Bitzer said. "The election cycles have no real break in them any more."
Campaign spending is tough to count for a number of reasons, including that public records do not present a perfect picture of the money spent thus far, and many entities may never have to report their spending on the campaign. Kantar data does not rely on open records. Rather, it counts each ad as it airs and assigns a cost estimate to it. Cost estimates tend to be lower than the actual spending, and cable buys aren't counted.
Still, the data provide both insight into the money spent so far and the money likely to be spent on the general election. When Hagan first won election in 2008, a series of ads featuring a pair of older gentlemen in rocking chairs hammered then-Sen. Elizabeth Dole with suggestions she was too old and out of touch. Dole and her allies largely stayed off television until the fall, allowing those Democratic Senate Campaign Committee ads to air unchallenged.
It is unlikely that either side missed the lesson of that campaign and will allow the airwaves to go uncontested this summer.
"You know, (Democratic strategist) James Carville has a wonderful saying that goes something like, 'The other guy can't say anything bad about you if you have your fist in his mouth,'" Bitzer said.
Of course, who exactly "the other guy" is is an ever-changing proposition. Nonprofit groups and businesses are able to spend on campaign-style advertising in larger amounts than candidates, who face restrictions on their campaign fundraising.
As the Kantar data shows, the top three spenders in this year's U.S. Senate campaign so far are not candidates, but outside groups affiliated with either Republican or Democratic causes.
"The amount of money not connected to any specific campaign will absolutely dwarf what the candidates themselves spend," Bitzer said.