A new analysis shows that the TV ads flooding Alaska's airwaves this election cycle have predominantly come from Democratic incumbent U.S. Sen. Mark Begich and his allies, as opposed to his Republican opponent, Dan Sullivan, and the groups backing him.
A review by the Center for Public Integrity found that Begich and Democratic groups that support him ran 19,900 commercials between November and late August, while Sullivan and groups supporting him ran 13,400.
Begich's campaign has run an estimated 10,100 ads compared to Sullivan's 5,300, which accounts for most of the difference. But even when it comes to outside groups like super PACs, Democratic groups have run more commercials than Republican groups, by a count of 9,433 to 7,975 -- figures that complicate an oft-cited Democratic message that Outside forces are trying to buy Alaska's Senate seat.
CPI's analysis, relying on data collected by the political arm of a research group called Kantar Media, showed that Democrats and their allies had run more ads than their opponents in five of the nine competitive Senate races it examined.
"The money picture certainly doesn't look like what the Democrats paint it as: a ton of conservative money opposing Democratic candidates," said Sarah Bryner, the research director at the Center for Responsive Politics, which is not connected to CPI. "The fact of the matter is the wealthy support both liberals and conservatives."
A spokesman for Begich, Max Croes, said the figures reflected that Begich's campaign had "aggressively fundraised and aggressively run a number of TV ads to communicate what Mark Begich has delivered for the state and why he deserves a second term."
Croes pointed to millions of dollars in ad space reserved by Republican-aligned groups and super PACs through Election Day and added in a phone interview: "At the end of the day, there's no doubt that Mark Begich is going to be outspent on this race."
Sullivan's campaign manager, Ben Sparks, disagreed, saying in a phone interview: "I think it's very clear that we will be outspent." Democratic groups have reserved millions of dollars in ad space themselves.
The money flowing into Alaska is one consequence of the campaign being at the center of a high-stakes national battle for control of the Senate, and both parties see the race as one they can win.
Sullivan had raised $4 million and spent $3 million as of late July, trailing Begich, who has raised $6 million and spent $5 million. That's far less than the $16 million or so spent by outside groups, but the candidates' money buys more ads because stations are legally required to give Sullivan and Begich lower rates.
The majority of the commercials run in Alaska, however, have come from the super PACs like Put Alaska First, which supports Begich, and American Crossroads, which support Sullivan -- as well as nonprofits like the Democratic-leaning VoteVets Action Fund and the Republican-leaning Americans for Prosperity.
While the Democratic groups have run more ads, Begich and the state Democratic party frequently target American Crossroads, which was co-founded by Karl Rove, and Americans for Prosperity, which is part of the political network of the industrialist Koch brothers.
In a new TV ad released Friday, Begich referred to a recent Americans for Prosperity ad as "paid for by the billionaire Koch brothers."
"They're spending millions to try to buy a Senate seat," Begich tells viewers. "I only answer to you. I approve this message because, believe me, those billionaires couldn't care less."
Asked to describe the difference between the groups supporting Sullivan and the primary super PAC supporting Begich, which has raised the vast majority of its money from another Democratic super PAC that counts billionaires like former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg as major donors, Croes responded that some of the groups backing Sullivan do not disclose their donors.
Croes added Begich has "no control over what the groups that you're referencing do or say." Federal law bars the groups from coordinating with candidates.
Croes pointed out that Begich supports a constitutional amendment to permanently reverse a recent pair of landmark U.S. Supreme Court decisions removing limits on campaign contributions from corporations, unions and individuals -- and Begich also plans to vote in the Senate on Monday for the DISCLOSE Act, which would force more groups that engage in significant political spending to identify their donors and to say how much they're paying for their campaigns.
Sullivan opposes both of those measures. But he has proposed a one-time agreement that his campaign and clean elections reformers say would deter the flow of outside money by forcing the candidates' campaigns to pay a fine every time they benefit from spending by the groups.
Begich, however, won't sign, and Sparks, the campaign manager for Sullivan, said that's "a conscious political decision" because Begich is benefiting from the attack ads that the outside groups are running.
"Begich knows he needs to increase Dan's negatives," Sparks said. "He needs these outside groups to go and do this."
Croes responded that Begich is refusing to sign the agreement because it's "entirely disingenuous at face value," given Sullivan's opposition to the long-term reforms that Begich supports.
The ad analysis by CPI runs only through late August, and at least $10 million more in spending on TV commercials is expected before Election Day.
Jim Lottsfeldt, the strategist who runs the pro-Begich Put Alaska First super PAC -- which is responsible for roughly one in every five of the commercials that have run so far -- agreed with Croes' prediction that their side could still end up being outspent.
"We do not have unlimited resources. So, yeah, I fear they could sprint ahead of us," Lottsfeldt said in a phone interview. "Traditionally, the Republicans outspend the Democrats in these sorts of races. My goal is never to outspend the Republicans -- it was just to get it close, make it a little more fair."
Bryner, the research director at the Center for Responsive Politics, said outside groups aligned with Republicans did outspend Democratic groups in the 2012 election cycle. Figures collected by her organization say conservative groups spent $860 million in that campaign, compared to $410 million in spending by liberal groups.
But those figures are much closer for the 2014 races, in which conservative groups have so far spent $109 million, and liberal groups have spent $95 million. (Those figures do not include spending by the nonprofit groups like Americans for Prosperity and VoteVets Action Fund.)
While Democrats have traditionally been more supportive of campaign finance reform, and more critical of the recent Supreme Court decisions allowing more outside spending, Bryner said political operatives on both sides recognize that they have to work within the structure in place.
"They know that saying, 'Well, we're not going to play by these rules' will mean that they won't be playing at all," she said.