CHARLESTON (AP) — For West Virginians already sick of political slam ads, TV will be even tougher to stomach after their Labor Day barbecues.
This election cycle, the state’s roots in retail politics have yielded to 30-second attacks with menacing narrators, headshots of President Barack Obama and generic clips of coal mines.
A decisive U.S. Senate race and two competitive House contests are attracting millions of dollars on the airwaves. Before Labor Day, the tab topped $7.5 million for ads from federal candidates and well-heeled outside interests, according to media buy breakdowns. The ads started last year.
More than $5.2 million is already set aside for a two-month fall barrage, and several candidates and groups haven’t made reservations yet. The amount could fluctuate, depending how tight races stay leading to Nov. 4.
The Senate race for the seat held by Democrat Jay Rockefeller, who is retiring, is essential as Republicans try to erase a thin Democratic majority. Republican U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito is the favorite against Democratic Secretary of State Natalie Tennant.
Some metro areas, like Charleston and Huntington, get an added dose of rhetoric in a media market shared with Kentucky. Ads from the race between Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes and GOP Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell are on constant rotation, while West Virginia viewers don’t get to vote for either.
Competitive state legislative races could also factor into the TV mix.
Whether the millions will be well-spent or blur into white noise remains to be seen. Both sides are complaining about out-of-state groups, but they have helped Democrats and Republicans.
“The West Virginia voters could simply turn off, not listen to the specific charge that outsiders are trying to buy us, and all these very expensive and slick ads that outsiders are buying,” said Robert Rupp, a West Virginia Wesleyan College political science professor.
The president isn’t on the midterm ballot. Listening to Republican strategy here, he might as well be.
Republicans are tightly focused on tying West Virginia Democrats to Obama. Few other states rejected him as soundly in 2012, when Obama lost all 55 counties.
West Virginia’s disdain for Obama partly stems from his energy policies. The administration is pushing to limit carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants. Many West Virginians view the proposal as an affront on the state’s iconic fossil fuel industry, which already is dwindling.
Most West Virginia Democratic candidates assure voters they’ll fight Obama on energy and other policies many voters dislike. Tennant took it a step further in one ad rebuking Obama, in which she pretended to cut the power to the White House.
The Obama disconnect in a historically Democratic state has been a green light for conservative groups.
Conservatives call up the same recycled imagery in ads — Democratic U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall shooting pool with Obama in 2008, and U.S. Senate hopeful Natalie Tennant and congressional candidate Nick Casey campaigning for Obama in 2008.
Charleston resident Laura Cardinale said she’s been tuning it all out.
“I would not base any of my decisions on an ad,” Cardinale said. “They need to stop slinging mud at each other.”
The biggest magnet for outside cash has been Rahall’s bid for a 20th term against Republican Evan Jenkins. Americans for Prosperity and American Energy Alliance, both associated with the wealthy, conservative Koch brothers, have bashed Rahall to the tune of about $2 million. House Majority PAC, a liberal super PAC, has poured in $1.3 million against Jenkins, a Democrat-turned-Republican state senator.
In mid-August, a group orchestrated by Karl Rove, a former adviser to President George W. Bush, entered the 3rd Congressional District mix. Crossroads GPS spent $330,000 to bash Rahall on coal.
Another Koch-related group, Freedom Partners, has booked air time this fall. So has the YG Network, which is linked to defeated Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.
Both sides have made claims struck down by fact checkers. PolitiFact wrote that Capito exaggerated by saying Obama’s carbon rule wouldn’t allow new coal power plants or burning of limited amounts of coal in existing plants. The Washington Post said Rahall used a flawed argument about a $6,000 increase in seniors’ Medicare costs under the GOP budget, and twisted a Jenkins quote about Medicaid to be about Medicare.
Both parties’ congressional campaign arms are also now involved. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has $1.2 million reserved this fall, while the National Republican Congressional Committee says it has booked $1.3 million.
Some of that party money could fuel the fight over the House seat Capito is vacating. Casey, a former state Democratic Party chairman, faces Alex Mooney, a former Maryland GOP chairman and state lawmaker who moved to West Virginia last year.