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Price no object, campaigns fill any last ad space

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FILE - In this Oct. 28, 2014 file photo, Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark. campaigns in an Arkadelphia, Ark. restaurant. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston, File) FILE - In this Oct. 28, 2014 file photo, Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark. campaigns in an Arkadelphia, Ark. restaurant. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston, File)

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — No, dear voter, it wasn't a dream. If you were watching television this weekend in Arkansas, you really did see that many political ads.

Some of you might even argue it was a nightmare.

"There is so much negative advertising from the politicians that I don't know what they do stand for," said Jason Mizell, who cast an early ballot Friday at a Little Rock library.

But he knows the negativity is there for a reason, he said. "I think it does work."

And not just in Arkansas. Across the country, in the first election since both parties fully embraced the new world of campaign finance created by Supreme Court decisions, including Citizens United, the television weekend was practically nothing but football and political ads.

"I've seen enough of them to last me a lifetime," said 74-year-old retiree Bert Cole, who cast his ballot early in Jonesboro. "I just hit the mute button and let them do their talking."

The pricey race in Arkansas between Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor and Republican Rep. Tom Cotton, as well as two competitive House contests and one for a soon-to-be-open governor's office, filled the air between Little Rock's television programs with enough ads this past weekend so that, theoretically, every targeted voter would see 34 political commercials a day.

"When you can predict what the ad will be, it's getting annoying," said Les Merrick, 50, who works with prosthetics and also voted early in Jonesboro.

It was just as intense in the state's other media markets, where candidates hunted for any time that hadn't been booked. Holding Pryor's seat is crucial to Democrats' hopes of keeping their majority in the Senate. Should Republicans win here and pick up five seats elsewhere, they'll have control of the chamber for the first time since after the 2006 election.

That's why escaping politics on TV was next to impossible just about anywhere with a competitive race on Tuesday's ballot.

In North Carolina, candidates and their allies have spent $62 million to run almost 102,000 ads this campaign season. Georgia has seen almost $43 million in ads, running some 65,000 times. And Kentucky has seen at least 79,000 ads at a cost of $34 million, according to an analysis from the Center for Public Integrity, using the widely accepted estimates from media tracking firm Kantar/CMAG.

In all, Pryor, Cotton and their supporters in Arkansas have spent more than $26 million to bombard viewers with roughly 60,000 messages. More than $56 million has been spent overall on the race, and the final postelection accounting will be even higher.

And it's not over, either.

Pryor's campaign was looking last week for last-minute advertising. On Thursday, Pryor booked a $4,400 spot during Monday's "The Voice" on Little Rock's NBC affiliate, KARK. At the same station, Cotton spotted one 30-second slice of time during the 5 p.m. hour on Saturday at a price of $15,000. He booked it.

Outside groups, too, were trying to cram in one more ad.

KARK charged the Freedom Partners Action Fund, backed by billionaire businessmen Charles and David Koch, $7,000 to show a 30-second ad during Wednesday night's "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit." Fox affiliate KLRT charged the Democrats' Senate Majority PAC $11,000 for Sunday's NFL game.

When the House Democrats' campaign committee started planning its fall ad strategy, it asked stations to set aside $1.5 million in ad time in the Little Rock area to saturate the market for five weeks. Months later, the Karl Rove-backed American Crossroads spent the same amount but got just one-third the airtime.

The National Rifle Association came in even later and paid $1 million. That sum was worth just one week of ads.

It's the same elsewhere, or very similar. In the 10 most expensive Senate races, nine have more than a dozen outside groups paying for ads. In eight of the 12 most expensive races, outside groups outpace spending by the actual people on the ballots.

In the Arkansas Senate race, less than one-third of the ad spending has been from the candidates. The balance has come from more than 30 independent groups that have crammed the airwaves at higher prices.

It's all too much for Fayetteville resident Geron Vail, who says that when a campaign ad comes on his TV, "I flip."

The ads, which he describes as "sad," are even pestering the 55-year-old when he sits down at his computer.

"You can't even click on a website without getting it," Vail said. "You have to wait through 15 seconds before you can even watch something on YouTube."

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Elliott reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Kelly P. Kissel in Little Rock contributed to this report.

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On Twitter, follow Philip Elliott at http://www.twitter.com/philip_elliott and Andrew DeMillo at http://www.twitter.com/ademillo

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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