LINCOLN — Political campaigns and outside groups have poured so much money into state-level television ads this election cycle that Nebraska now ranks fourth nationally in the amount spent per voter, new analysis shows.
A report by the Center for Public Integrity says the spending has reached an estimated $4.1 million — about $3.12 for each eligible voter — in the races for Nebraska governor and attorney general.
Nebraska ranked 19th in overall spending, but when adjusted for the number of voters it lagged behind only Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and Maryland. The report scheduled for release Wednesday accounts for ads that ran between Jan. 1, 2013, and Sept. 8.
The non-partisan Center for Public Integrity reviewed data about political advertising on national cable and broadcast television in all of the country's 210 media markets. The organization used research from Kantar Media/CMAG, which tracks political advertising and offers a widely accepted estimate of the money spent to air each spot.
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The figures only represent part of the money spent on political advertising. They do not include the money spent on ads on radio, online and direct mail, as well television ads on local cable systems or the cost of producing the messages. That means the total cost of spending on political ads can be significantly higher.
Television ad spending has exploded this year compared to the last comparable election in 2010, when the total in Nebraska amounted to less than $69,500.
The 2010 contest was quieter in part because Republican Gov. Dave Heineman and Attorney General Jon Bruning both sought re-election as incumbents in a GOP-dominated state. Heineman was elected to a second term with nearly 74 percent of the vote, and carried all 93 of Nebraska's counties. Bruning ran unopposed.
This year, the GOP field widened dramatically with Heineman stepping down and Bruning abandoning a re-election bid so he could run for governor. Six Republican candidates ran for governor and four for attorney general.
The election also saw the rise of outside groups that filled the airwaves with attack ads. The groups began appearing after several U.S. Supreme Court rulings, including the 2010 Citizens United case, which struck down restrictions on ad spending by corporations, unions and independent groups.
Outside groups accounted for slightly more than $1 million of the total spent so far, according to the estimates. The biggest spender was Citizens for a Sound Government, a Colorado-based nonprofit with ties to the conservative billionaire Koch brothers.
The group, which does not disclose its donors, spent $304,700 attacking Bruning on television during his unsuccessful primary bid for governor. The second-biggest was the Republican Governors Association, which has pumped more than $201,000 into television ads attacking Democratic governor candidate Chuck Hassebrook.
The rise of outside money concerns groups that advocate for campaign transparency.
"It's really disturbing," said Jack Gould, issues chairman for Common Cause Nebraska. "More and more, we're seeing money replace the importance of people in these elections. When you allow that kind of money to flow in, the little $20 contribution from your average Nebraskan doesn't have as much significance."
Republican businessman Pete Ricketts has invested by far the most in television ads, having spent $1.1 million during the primary and general election race for governor. Hassebrook has spent $234,800.
Ricketts, a former TD Ameritrade executive and son of the company's founder, Joe Ricketts, has aired more than 9,100 television ads since he announced his bid. Hassebrook has run 869 considered positive and 247 negative spots that attacked Ricketts.
All of Ricketts' ads were classified as positive, although several opponents have alleged that his campaign is behind anonymous negative ads that targeted Bruning in the primary and Hassebrook in the general. Ricketts has denied the claim. Without a required disclosure, Gould said, the public has no way to know for sure.
In the attorney general's race, Republican Doug Peterson spent $6,400. One other candidate, GOP hopeful Brian Buescher, spent $82,800 in the primary before losing to Peterson. The Judicial Crisis Network, a Washington-based group, spent $85,000 in support of Republican contender Mike Hilgers.