- Associated Press - Sunday, August 29, 2010

Across the country, political ad spending is up, and attack ads lead the way. Those who take the high road do so at their peril.

Candidates for state and federal office have spent $395 million on ads for the November elections, compared with $286 million at this point in the 2006 midterms. More than half the ads have been negative.

Political parties and outside groups have been more negative, going on the attack in nearly 80 percent of their ads while spending $150 million, $41 million ahead of the 2006 pace.

The numbers - compiled by Evan Tracey, who tracks political ads as president of CMAG, a division of Kantar Media - reflect a need by candidates and their allies to define opponents quickly to an increasingly engaged electorate. Those who don’t have paid the price.

Bill McCollum, running for Florida governor, and Lisa Murkowski, running for re-election as senator from Alaska, may have fought back too late in their respective Republican primaries. Their opponents attacked them early and often, costing Mr. McCollum the election Tuesday and leaving a stunned Mrs. Murkowski on the edge of defeat, pending a tally of absentee ballots.

In Arizona, Sen. John McCain beat his primary challenger, former Rep. J.D. Hayworth, with a fierce advertising counterpunch, proving what politicians hate to admit - negative wins. And in Nevada, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, his GOP opponent and the outside groups that are helping them could set the tone for the remainder of the year in a campaign that would scorch the Mojave Desert.

The onslaught seeks to influence an electorate that is anxious and angry over the economy and demanding change. In that environment, undecided and independent voters are less likely to wait to make up their minds.

“The concrete is setting up early,” said Wes Anderson, a Republican pollster working on a number of House contests.

The explosion in pre-Labor Day advertising also comes amid a high number of contested primaries, a growing move toward early voting, and more lax campaign-finance rules that make it easier for corporations and unions to participate in elections.

Mrs. Murkowski was the target of a concerted ad campaign by the “tea party” movement. The California-based Tea Party Express spent nearly $590,000 - about $400,000 during the final two weeks of the contest - on behalf of her challenger, lawyer Joe Miller. The ads portrayed Mrs. Murkowski as a liberal Washington insider who was not sufficiently committed to repealing PresidentObama’s health care law.

Mrs. Murkowski, the daughter of a former Alaska governor and senator, Frank Murkowski, chose not to respond to the ads until late in the campaign. She now trails Mr. Miller in the vote and is placing her hopes on absentee ballots that will take days to count.

In Nevada, Republican Senate candidate Sharron Angle went up with an ad Thursday linking Mr. Reid to Mr. Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, calling theirs a “tragic love story” and denouncing bank bailouts and the economic stimulus.

“For our guys, it’s real simple. It’s hardly about you and hardly about your Democrat opponent,” said Mr. Anderson, the Republican consultant. “It’s about what’s happening in Washington.”

Mr. Reid’s newest ad labels Mrs. Angle as “just too extreme,” citing her statements about Social Security, abortion and rape victims, and her support for a Church of Scientology program that promotes massage and sauna therapy for prison inmates.

The challenge for Democrats, said Tad Devine, a Democratic media consultant, is to make a connection with their constituents and demonstrate that they have not lost touch with them. “Most important,” he added, “you have to make it a choice between yourself and your opponent, and show that your opponents’ liabilities are enormous.”

Not all are embracing this type of head-butting politics.

Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial candidate, John Hickenlooper, aired an ad showing him stepping into a shower time and again, fully clothed, to decry negative ads.

Mr. Hickenlooper could afford to joke. He enjoys a double-digit lead in the polls in a three-way contest where the Republican nominee and a Republican-turned-independent are splitting their vote.

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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