Sleuthing political ads in competitive Senate races

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Check out political ad buys on Political Ad Sleuth. Clicking the image will take you to the site.

Television broadcast stations around the country are opening their political files for the first time, giving the public a whole array of new tools to track dark money in their local and federal elections. Newly unearthed files reveal the extent to which politically active nonprofits can dominate the TV air wars and Sunlight’s Political Ad Sleuth is there to help watchdogs to track these mystery-meat organizations.

Under old Federal Communications Commission regulations, only the four biggest stations in the top-50 media markets along those broadcasting had to upload their political ad files to the Internet. Several states with hot-button Senate races do not have a top-50 market within their borders, meaning their political ad contracts were not required to be online.

That left information on a lot of political activity inaccessible. The Federal Election Commission, which tracks most federal political spending, does not require organizations that run issue ads–messages that criticize or praise a candidate’s position on an issue without explicitly telling citizens to vote for or against that candidate–unless they are aired 30 days before a primary or 60 days before the general election. That makes the station political files the only place to find out what nonprofit groups–ranging from Crossroads GPS to the Sierra Club–are up to in the months preceding an election.

But most stations kept those files in filing cabinets; to access them, one had to visit the station in person.

Now, thanks to an FCC mandate that went into effect July 1, these files have officially been put online and Sunlight is keeping tabs as new ad files roll in to our tracker.


It’s already Christmas in Alaska for local television stations.

A preliminary look at political ad files uploaded today shows that major players in the state’s Senate race have already reserved air time all the way through Election Day. Some of the highlights:

Despite President Barack Obama’s complaints about the rightward tilt of the FOX network, Democrats are spending plenty to advertise on the network’s Anchorage affiliate, KTBY. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has paid more than $100,000 to buy more than 200 spots, including some pricy ones during college and NFL football games. Sen. Mark Begich, a Democrat battling Republican Dan Sullivan for a second term, bought more than 100 spots on the station scheduled to air over a two week period at the end of September and the beginning of October.

Meanwhile, the GOP-affiliated American Crossroads also appears to have reserved ad time all the way through Election Day. So far Sunlight has found $85,000 worth of contracts to buy more than 200 spots during the month of October on station KYUR, Channel 13 in Anchorage in addition to several buys on KTBY.


A Koch-backed group out of Virginia spent about $50,000 to run two weeks of ads in the small Lake Charles, La., market.

Generation Opportunity, a “millennial advocacy organization” according to its website, purchased 110 ads on Lake Charles NBC affiliate KPLC between June 23 and July 8, according to FCC filings from Sunlight’s Political Ad Sleuth.

While Louisiana is locked in a heated Senate race between incumbent Sen. Mary Landrieu and Rep. Bill Cassidy, it’s impossible to tell whether Generation Opportunity is running this ad attacking Landrieu on her spending record in Congress. That’s because the group failed to adequately fill out a mandatory disclosure form stating which issues their television spots will be discussing. Unfortunately, this lack of disclosure is common for so-called “dark money” groups such as Generation Opportunity.

The group is running an almost identical ad to the one targeting Landrieu against Colorado Sen. Mark Udall, who’s also facing a competitive race. According to the Denver Post, the group spent nearly $900,000 on internet and television ads in support of that race.

According to, Generation Opportunity received about 86 percent of its operating budget from two Koch brother linked groupsThe group lists its address as a P.O. Box in Arlington, Va., and as it’s incorporated as a non-profit, is not required to disclose its donors.

Lake Charles, which sits about 150 miles east of Houston, is America’s 175th ranked television market with an audience of about 96,000 TV homes.


A trio of environmentally-focused political nonprofits, the Sierra Club, the League of Conservation Voters and the Environmental Defense Action Fund, have made headlines for blasting conservative Senate hopeful Joni Ernst, a state senator, for her “[promise] to abolish the EPA” and her ties to Sarah Palin. Meanwhile, a liberal veterans’ group has run ads supporting Ernst’s opponent, Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley and Republican Governor Terry Branstad for their support of the Renewable Fuel Standards. According to the veteran narrating the spot, the RFS “means less money going to enemies that threaten our troops overseas.”

Political ad contracts contain important information like the middle men the advertisers are using, the shows during which the ads will run, flight dates and how much advertisers are spending to influence voters.

The most recent contract from the Environmental Defense Action Fund, for example, show the group spent $25,250 to secure 38 different spots at KWWL NBC in Iowa’s Cedar Rapids market. The upcoming ad campaign was purchased for EDAF by Waterfront Strategies — which performs similar work for the Sierra Club and the LCV — will run from July 1 to 10.

In the aggregate, this information has allowed Sunlight Foundation to report on the full scope of outside spending in battleground markets. 

West Virginia

Americans for Prosperity is filing non-candidate issue ads in Bluefield-Beckley-Oak Hill.  NAB forms filed by Smart Media Group for Americans for Prosperity list the issue as “Americans for Prosperity.”  These ad buys are for June and July.

The DCCC is filing non-candidate issue ads in Charleston, WV running from Sept to Nov.  The issue is not listed on any of the forms.  The YG Network has also issue ad buys in Charleston for October, but NAB forms are not submitted with the contracts.