Left: Sen. Pat Toomey. Right: Katie McGinty.

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Even U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey says the inundation of negative advertising in Pennsylvania is making it hard to watch TV. And many of the ads are helping his chances at winning re-election.

“There’s been an unbelievable amount of negative campaigning, there’s no question about it,” Toomey, a Republican running for re-election, said during a recent debate. “I am staggered by the amount of money that’s been spent in this race already.”

Meanwhile, his opponent, Democrat Katie McGinty, said she’s in favor of putting a lid on the amount of financial influence outside groups can have in races like her own. The truth is: Both candidates in Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate race have heavily benefited from spending by outside groups and, sometimes, dark money political committees with very little accountability.

Those outside groups have already spent more than $80 million on just this race to finance TV advertising, mailers, canvassing efforts and Get Out the Vote programming. The candidates themselves have spent about a third of that. This race — which could determine the lean of the Senate and, in many ways, the lean of the Supreme Court — is poised to pass $120 million in spending, making it the most expensive senate campaign in the history of the country.

Pennsylvania voters, especially around Philadelphia and its voter-rich suburbs, have been inundated by a deluge of political advertising in both the Senate race and the presidential race. That makes it nearly impossible to watch a show, especially a news program, without feeling like the candidates and all their friends are in the living room tugging either way for a vote.

It’s hard to overstate just how important the Pennsylvania Senate race is for Washington. And it’s even harder to overstate the role outside groups and super PACs have played on television, especially in the Philadelphia area. The advertising these groups employ tends to be more negative than that of the campaigns themselves. It’s also hard to tell who’s behind it when the groups have names like “Majority Forward” and “Priorities USA” and “American Prosperity.”

We’ve pored through filings with the Federal Elections Commission and the Federal Communications Commission, as well as the Political TV Ad Archive, a non-profit that tracks how often ads are appearing in certain areas of the country and what the content of those ads is, to help show just how much of a role these sometimes shadowy groups are having on one of the most important races in the country — and on you.

How much has been spent

About $100 million has been spent by what the FEC calls “independent expenditure” groups so far this election cycle in Pennsylvania. Of that, more than $80 million has been spent directly on the U.S. Senate race, and the rest can be attributed to the presidential race. This is a breakdown of how much of that senate race spending has been either 1. Supporting McGinty 2. Opposing McGinty 3. Supporting Toomey or 4. Opposing Toomey.

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Clearly, these groups favor negative advertising. And their spending on the race so far significantly dwarfs what the candidates themselves have raised and spent through their respective fundraising committees.

According to recently filed quarterly reports, Toomey’s campaign has raised a total of $26.6 million and spent $22.5 million. Reports for McGinty’s last reporting period haven’t yet been posted by the FEC, but we can surmise based on the last quarter and public statements made by her campaign that she’s raised a total of about $12 million. Remember: McGinty’s camp had to pay big bucks during the primary, while Toomey sat back unchallenged raking in a $10 million war chest to prepare for the general election.

But that’s hard to tell when you’re just trying to watch afternoon talk shows without being interrupted by political advertising at every turn. That’s because both candidates have a massive amount of outside support. According to the FEC, these are the 18 groups that have so far spent more than $1 million each in Pennsylvania:

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A note on this spending: Toomey has said he isn’t in favor of putting spending limits on campaigning. Meanwhile, McGinty has touted that she’s endorsed by a group called “End Citizens United,” which aims to get outside spending out of politics.

How many ads you’ve seen

Since July 1, almost 20,000 television ads have run in the Philadelphia area on five channels: CBS, Fox 29, NBC10, 6ABC and Univision. Of those, about 60 percent were related to the senate race while 40 percent were for the presidential:

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What’s more interesting is who paid for those ads. Of the about 20,000 commercials that have run, about 7,500 were paid for by the committees of the candidates themselves. The rest were funded by outside groups like PACs, super PACs, non-profits and trade associations.

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The ads you’ve seen most frequently

Of the ads that have run in the Philadelphia area, five have emerged as the ads that have run the most frequently — all of them were paid for by massive committees and super PACs, and all are negative ads about Toomey and Trump. That doesn’t necessarily mean Democrats are running more negative ads. It simply means the groups that paid for these ads had confidence in them and bought the most amount of ads spots compared to the others running during the campaign. These are the top five:

1. ‘His Words’

YouTube video

This attack ad on Toomey goes after his record on social security. It was paid for by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, a party-affiliated group that spends to elect Democratic candidates. It aired more than 800 times in the Philadelphia area.

2. ‘Perfect Record’


The above ad hits Toomey on his record on guns. It was paid for by the Senate Majority PAC, a super PAC that’s working to elect Democratic candidates to the senate. It ran nearly 800 times in our area.

3. ‘Alive’

YouTube video

The above ad hits Toomey on his record on women and Planned Parenthood, and it was paid for by Women Vote! — that’s a subsection of Emily’s List, a super PAC that aims to elect pro-choice candidates. It has aired 668 times in the Philadelphia area.

4. ‘Compare’


This ad was also paid for by the Senate Majority PAC, and it attacks Toomey’s record on energy and jobs. It has aired 561 times in the Philadelphia area.

5. ‘Dante’

YouTube video

The only presidential ad to crack the top five is this attack ad of Trump, which hits the Republican on his mocking comments about a reporter with a disability. It was paid for by Priorities USA, a massive super PAC backing Clinton, and has aired more than 500 times in the Philadelphia area.

Where you’ve seen the most ads

Maybe you’re a media wonk. Or maybe you just want to figure out which channels and shows you need to avoid if you don’t want to get caught up in the insane amount of political messaging between segments. NBC10 and 6ABC lead the networks in terms of the number of ads they’ve run in both the presidential race and the senate race — no surprise there, as the channels have the best ratings in the city. Here’s a look at the comparison of where the ads are running based on the number of commercials run so far:

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Of those, about two thirds ran during news programming while the rest ran during another show, ranging from Live with Kelly to Dr. Phil to Bob’s Burgers.

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These are the 25 shows during which the most political ads aired in Philadelphia since July 1:

  1. Today – 787 ads
  2. Eyewitness News at 6 p.m. – 631 ads
  3. Good Day Philadelphia at 7 a.m. – 584 ads
  4. Fox 29 News at 10 – 425 ads
  5. CBS This Morning – 419 ads
  6. Eyewitness News at 5 p.m. – 418 ads
  7. Eyewitness News at 12 p.m. – 339 ads
  8. NBC10 News at 4 p.m. – 332 ads
  9. NBC10 News at 6 p.m. – 331 ads
  10. NBC10 News at 11 – 329 ads
  11. Good Morning America – 325 ads
  12. NBC10 News at 5 p.m. – 303 ads
  13. Action News at 11 p.m. – 302 ads
  14. Action News at 5 p.m. – 301 ads
  15. Good Day Philadelphia at 9 a.m. – 294 ads
  16. NBC10 News Today at 6 a.m. – 292 ads
  17. Live With Kelly – 288 ads
  18. NBC10 News Today at 11 a.m. – 275 ads
  19. Action News at 4 p.m. – 273 ads
  20. Good Day Philadelphia at 6 a.m. – 269 ads
  21. Judge Judy – 268 ads
  22. Dr. Phil – 264 ads
  23. Action News at 6 p.m. – 250 ads
  24. Late Show with Stephen Colbert – 246 ads
  25. Action News at 6 a.m. – 240 ads

Who’s on the air

If all you did was watch TV commercials, you’d probably have no idea your ballot will have races on it other than the senate race and the presidential race. FCC filings show that in the Philadelphia area, the vast majority of ad space has been bought up by senate candidates, presidential candidates and the independent groups that are supporting those four individuals.

The only other ads for federal races that are airing in the area are for suburban congressional campaigns. Meanwhile, the only statewide candidate to have purchased ad space in Philadelphia so far is Democrat Josh Shapiro, who is running for attorney general.

If you want to know who is actually going to be on your ballot beyond the presidential candidates and the senate candidates, use this tool to enter your address and see what you’ll encounter on Election Day.

Anna Orso was a reporter/curator at Billy Penn from 2014 to 2017.