By Kathleen Foody
Wausau Daily Herald

Counting down the days to the Nov. 2 general election and the end of political advertising?

Well, brace yourself for September and October.

Wausau-area television stations have received a barrage of bookings from political candidates, national party campaign organizations and corporations for the next two months.

Ads already have flooded local airwaves during the primary season and political observers expect the 2010 election season to set records for advertising spending across the country by campaigns and outside groups.

The combination of competitive races, high stakes for both political parties and a Supreme Court ruling permitting corporate money to enter the political scene created a “perfect storm” likely to result in record spending, the University of Wisconsin’s Advertising Project predicted in March.

Local and cable television sales officials said it’s too soon to tell whether that prediction will come true before Nov. 2. Generally, sales are ahead of pace for typical midterm election years.

“I think we’re going to see unprecedented spending and negativity in state and federal races,” said Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause Wisconsin, a public interest group that advocates for stricter campaign finance laws. “And voters are going to be the ones having to bear through.”

Across Wisconsin, higher advertising sales can be attributed in part to a U.S. Supreme Court decision in January, political observers said. The justices ruled that campaign finance law cannot prohibit corporations or unions from funding independent political advertising.

Scholars and politicians alike predicted the ruling would result in a flood of corporations and unions running ads for preferred candidates or passing funds on to larger political committees, said Ed Miller, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

“It’s probably too soon to tell whether that will happen,” Miller said. “Some businesses are hesitant about directly contributing to ads and becoming associated with one viewpoint or candidate.”

The tricky part for voters is determining where ads come from: Candidates, political parties’ advertising arms or corporate and union money, Heck said. Stronger disclosure laws at the federal and state level were stalled, making it more difficult to determine who’s financing the message, he said.

“Even when you see a disclaimer, as a viewer you don’t immediately know where the money behind that group comes from,” Heck said. “If we had stronger disclosure laws, at least voters would have a better idea who’s behind these organizations.”

One of the groups Heck mentioned as a “front” for corporate spending — Americans for Prosperity — has purchased ad time in Wausau and plans to spend more this fall.

Americans for Prosperity, sometimes identified as the New Prosperity Foundation, reserved time for various dates in September worth $60,450 at CBS affiliate WSAW and $12,023 through Charter Cable to air in Marathon County, according to station records. The group also spent more than $50,000 locally on ads against Democratic congressional candidate Julie Lassa in August.

The Chicago-based organization is backed by petroleum and natural gas giant Koch Industries, though the company’s name is never mentioned during the 30-second ads.

The advertising arms of the national Republican and Democratic parties have reserved thousands of dollars worth of time, adding to the “outside” money totals. The congressional committees aren’t permitted to communicate with individual candidates or campaigns.

The National Republican Congressional Committee reserved $63,750 on Wausau’s Fox affiliate in September and October, according to station records. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee reserved $21,700 on the Fox affiliate and $89,275 on Wausau’s ABC affiliate WAOW through the general election.

Miller said the 2010 election will be an interesting test for political theorists. Typically, the more money is spent on advertising during a race, the more negative campaigns become, he said.

“The old idea that negative ads turn people off and depress turnout hasn’t been shown to be true,” Miller said. “If there’s any year to really test that, we have one.”