Across the country, political ad spending is up and attack ads lead the way. Those who take the high road do so at their peril.
As of Thursday, candidates for state and federal office had spent $395 million on ads for the November elections, compared with $286 million at this point in the 2006 midterms. More than half the ads have been negative.
Political parties and outside groups have been more negative, going on the attack in nearly 80 percent of their ads while spending $150 million, $41 million ahead of the 2006 pace.
The numbers - compiled by Evan Tracey, who tracks political ads as president of CMAG, a division of Kantar Media - reflect a need by candidates and their allies to define opponents quickly to an increasingly engaged electorate. Those who don't have paid the price.
Bill McCollum, running for Florida governor, and Lisa Murkowski, running for re-election as senator from Alaska, may have fought back too late in their respective Republican primaries. Their opponents attacked them early and often, costing McCollum the election Tuesday and leaving a stunned Murkowski on the edge of defeat.
In Arizona, Sen. John McCain beat his primary challenger, former Rep. J.D. Hayworth, with a fierce advertising counterpunch, proving what politicians hate to admit - negative wins. And in Nevada, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, his GOP opponent and the outside groups that are helping them could set the tone for the remainder of the year in a campaign that would scorch the Mojave Desert.
The onslaught seeks to influence an electorate that is anxious and angry over the economy and demanding change. In that environment, undecided and independent voters are less likely to wait to make up their minds.
"The concrete is setting up early," said Wes Anderson, a Republican pollster working on a number of House contests.
The explosion in pre-Labor Day advertising also comes amid a high number of contested primaries, a growing move toward early voting, and more lax campaign finance rules that make it easier for corporations and unions to participate in elections.
Murkowski was the target of a concerted ad campaign by the tea party movement. The California-based Tea Party Express spent nearly $590,000 - about $400,000 during the final two weeks of the contest - on behalf of her challenger, lawyer Joe Miller. The ads portrayed Murkowski as a liberal Washington insider who was not sufficiently committed to repeal President Barack Obama's health care law.
Murkowski, the daughter of a former Alaska governor and senator, Frank Murkowski, chose not to respond to the ads until late in the campaign. She now trails Miller in the vote and is placing her hopes on absentee ballots that will take days to count.
In Florida, the GOP gubernatorial primary winner, Rick Scott, and McCollum and the outside groups that helped them spent more than $70 million.
Scott, who built the giant Columbia/HCA hospital chain in the 1990s, financed his own campaign, swiftly airing ads casting McCollum as part of the governing establishment. In one ad, aired by a group mostly financed by Scott's wife, a female narrator suggested McCollum should be changed like a baby's diaper. "Bill McCollum's record stinks," she said.
McCollum and his allies fought back, citing Scott's forced resignation from the hospital chain amid a Medicaid/Medicare fraud investigation. (Though the company paid a $1.7 billion settlement, Scott was not charged and has said he knew of no wrongdoing.) The race ultimately tightened, but Scott prevailed.
Arizona's Senate contest pitted McCain against Hayworth, who was eager to harness the tea party's anti-Washington fervor. McCain promptly denied Hayworth any traction. He capitalized on Hayworth's appearance in an infomercial that pitched government money on behalf of a company accused of swindling customers out of thousands of dollars. McCain's ads called Hayworth a "huckster."
McCain's ads were devastating. "They turned Hayworth into a parody of himself," said Democratic media consultant Tad Devine.
Seeing the lesson, some Democratic incumbents are already anticipating the anti-Washington attacks and leaping into offense.
In Nevada, Republican Senate candidate Sharron Angle went up with an ad Thursday linking Reid to Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, calling theirs a "tragic love story" and denouncing bank bailouts and the economic stimulus.
"For our guys, it's real simple. It's hardly about you and hardly about your Democrat opponent," said Anderson, the Republican consultant. "It's about what's happening in Washington."
Reid's newest ad labels Angle as "just too extreme," citing her statements about Social Security, abortion and rape victims, and her support for a Church of Scientology program that promotes massage and sauna therapy for prison inmates.
The challenge for Democrats, Devine said, is to make a connection with their constituents and demonstrate that they have not lost touch with them. "Most important," he added, "you have to make it a choice between yourself and your opponent and show that your opponents' liabilities are enormous."
Not all are embracing this type of head-butting politics.
Colorado's Democratic gubernatorial candidate, John Hickenlooper, aired an ad showing him stepping into a shower time and again, fully clothed, to decry negative ads.
Hickenlooper could afford to joke. He enjoys a double-digit lead in the polls.
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