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Koch-affiliated groups gobble up airtime at more than 100 TV stations

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"Don’t let a New York billionaire use a Minnesota cop to tell New Hampshire what to think ..."

So goes an ad funded by two Kansas billionaire siblings defending a New England senator last year.

The ad which ran last May in New Hampshire, took aim at former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's TV campaign attacking Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte’s no vote on gun-control legislation following the Sandy Hook school massacre in Newtown, Conn. It's just one example of a TV ad blitz launched by Koch-backed organizations during the 2014 political cycle. As of July 10, according to data from Sunlight’s Political Ad Sleuth, groups linked to Charles and David Koch have bought advertising time at least 106 different stations from Miami to Anchorage, Alaska.

Media markets in which Koch-brothers affiliated groups bought air time during the 2014 election cycle. Darker colors indicate purchases on more stations. 

This figure is more than likely an underestimate, as most television stations did not have to make political ad spending at their stations available online until July 1. For the two years prior to that, only stations affiliated with the top four broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC) and located in the nation's 50 biggest TV markets had to upload their ad buys to the FCC. Other stations kept the files on paper, making tabulating buys across TV markets next-to impossible for anyone lacking infinite time and a massive travel budget.

The new requirement for online filing helps us see where major advertisers are spending,

What we can know, however, is which stations a Koch-affiliated organization made a purchase in by searching Sunlight’s database of political ad buys and matching buyer names to this list of political non-profits in the Koch brothers’ network, compiled by the Washington Post and the Center for Responsive Politics.

The results show these organizations investing heavily in several markets with competitive elections, such as North Carolina, where Sen. Kay Hagan, a Democrat, is in an expensive reelection battle with state House Speaker Thom Tillis. For example in Charlotte, the state's most expensive market, Koch-backed groups have bought airtime on six television stations since Jan. 1, 2013. Americans for Prosperity, the 60 Plus Association and Generation Opportunity were all buying TV time in the "Queen City" in fall, 2013.

Koch groups also bought airtime on five stations in Denver, the biggest market Colorado, where a fiercely competitive U.S. Senate race pits incumbent Democrat Mark Udall against GOP Rep. Cory Gardner. In that market, airtime was purchased by the American Energy Alliance pushing for the Keystone XL pipeline. In another ad, a woman speaking against a white background attacks Udall for supporting the Affordable Healthcare Act. An identical ad was produced against another embattled Democrat, Sen. Mary Landrieu, in Louisiana.

Americans for Prosperity also purchased airtime on three stations in Wichita, Kansas. The move could be related to the closely-fought governor’s race or because Koch Industries is headquartered there.

Readers should note that because dark money groups are specifically set up to hide donor identities, we can’t say whether this map covers all the groups in the Koch universe. Without a more rigorous disclosure regime governing political nonprofits, there’s no way of knowing if any new Koch-backed entities have sprouted up since the 2012 election.

Adding up exactly how much money the Kochs spent or exactly how much ad time they bought remains a dauntingly labor-intensive task, as federal regulations don’t mandate a standardized, machine-readable disclosure form for television advertising like those that exist for most campaign expenditures — (a transparency measure that we at Sunlight have been advocating.) That means the data has to be extracted by hand from a hodge-podge of forms, a difficult (but not impossible) task.

Despite those limitations, our analysis shows that the Koch brothers and their affiliated groups have no intention of sitting this election out. Having already spent $1.2 million to buy ads in just one ABC-affiliate in New Hampshire, the upcoming midterm races should prove to be another testament that post Citizens United, the massive influence that well-heeled political players wield is only matched by the opacity in which they can operate.