RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — We're not used to all this in Virginia: the nonstop political poison in television ads, presidential-level road trips across the byways and back roads, the annoying dinner-hour robocalls from hidden numbers that advance the art of character assassination.
How much of it can you believe? Who's behind the claims you're hearing? And how much are they paying to broadcast it all into your living rooms several times an hour?
It's not even Labor Day, the traditional date when politics finally throttle up for the sprint to Election Day. Yet the television and radio airwaves are saturated as never before with candidates, political parties and independent groups with partisan allegiances trying to shape Virginia's electoral landscape.
"It's already not safe to turn on your TV," said Christopher J. LaCivita, a Republican strategist from Virginia who advises clients all over the country. "In a month, it's not going to be safe to turn on your computer. And by October, it won't be safe to answer your phone."
Elizabeth Wilner of the Campaign Media Analysis Group said the volume of political advertising in Virginia is double that of 2008.
"And in 2008, we ranked Virginia No. 1 in the nation for the most money spent per electoral vote," who is vice president of CMAG, a subsidiary of Kantar Media and a bible of data for professionals in political advertising. "The proliferating this year is from outside groups advertising more and spending vast amounts of money to do it, more than ever before."
For Virginia's modern-day Democratic Party, 2008 was a high-water mark. Republicans lost a presidential race in Virginia for the first time in 44 years, lost three U.S. House seats and were trounced in that fall's U.S. Senate race. The GOP and its conservative allies have clawed back every day since, winning the 2009 governor's race in a rout.
They got a huge boost in January 2010, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a federal campaign finance law that had restricted corporate involvement in politics. The result unlocked vast reserves of corporate money and the creation of super political action committees that can spend without limit, often without disclosing their benefactors.
A respected nonpartisan and nonprofit political finance watchdog, the Center for Responsive Politics, says such independent groups have spent slightly more than $6.3 million in Virginia's Senate race between George Allen, a Republican running to regain the seat he lost in 2006, and Tim Kaine, a former governor and for two years, the head of the Democratic National Committee. CRP's website, OpenSecrets.org, ranks Virginia second behind Texas in total spending by all outside, non-candidate groups in U.S. Senate contests.
Political pros on both sides say far more has actually been spent, noting that OpenSecrets doesn't track "issue advocacy" ads, those clever contrivances that tar a candidate over a certain topic but avoid being ruled political by urging viewers to call and voice their opinions — not to elect or defeat — an officeholder.
Mo Elleithee, a Democratic media consultant who is advising Kaine, estimated the independent attacks against Kaine to be $8.5 million and rising as of Friday.
Nate Hodson, spokesman for American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, two lavishly funded conservative independent groups led by former George W. Bush political guru Karl Rove, took credit for about $7 million of it and said there's at least $5.7 million more ready for the fall with more where that came from if needed.
LaCivita is a consultant to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which has yet to spend any of the $5 million it has budgeted to aid Allen this fall.
Last week on Wednesday alone, five new ads went on the air in the Virginia Senate race. Three of them attacked Kaine, and two of the three were from Crossroads GPS, a nonprofit that doesn't have to disclose its donors to the Federal Election Commission, provided it spends no more than half its money on political activities. A third was aired by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The two anti-Allen ads were courtesy of the pro-Democrat League of Conservation Voters and Majority PAC.
At a minimum, attack ads cut corners and appeal more to the spleen than to the mind, presenting an adversarial candidate in the darkest light. Some are so over-simplified and incomplete they invite viewers to draw a logical but errant conclusion. Some are overtly misleading, but blend in enough fact to make the distortions palatable.
The anti-Allen ads, for instance, note that he voted for trillions in debt, but withhold the context that many of the votes were tied to America's military response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The ad backed partly by the environmental group accurately notes that Allen took in well more than $500,000 during his Senate term from oil and gas interests and, after losing his seat, went to work for them.
Some of the anti-Kaine ads have taken even greater liberties. One of Crossroads GPS's Wednesday ads rebukes Kaine for defending an 11th-hour deal between Congress and the Obama White House last year to increase the U.S. debt ceiling and avoid defaulting on American bonds for the first time, a move that would sent global financial markets into a tailspin. It never mentions that those who agreed with Kaine at the time included House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, House Speaker John Boehner, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and 2008 presidential candidate John McCain, all Republicans.
Another ad notes accurately that Kaine proposed a $2 billion tax increase just before leaving office, but claims that spending soared under Kaine's watch as governor. Actually, the state's discretionary general fund budget actually fell from a high of $15.3 billion in 2007 to $12.6 billion in fiscal 2010, the budget that was in place when Kaine's term ended. The austere budgets were forced on Kaine and the General Assembly by the worst recession since the Great Depression.
Bob Lewis has covered Virginia politics and government for The Associated Press since 2000.