Which Election 2010 race has run the most TV ads? Not the one you'd expect.

Campaign TV ads are ramping up ahead of Nov. 2, but the race that has run more than any other in the nation has been largely overlooked by the national media, though it is crucial to the GOP.

Morry Gash/AP
First lady Michelle Obama speaks at a campaign event for Sen. Russ Feingold (D) of Wisconsin Wednesday in Milwaukee.
Morry Gash/AP
Wisconsin Republican senatorial candidate Ron Johnson speaks Tuesday in Arkdale, Wis.

In an election season that has buzzed with stories from Delaware to Alaska, it is Wisconsin that, by one important measure, has been in the eye of the storm.

More television ads ran in the US Senate race in Wisconsin than for any race in any other state, according to the Wesleyan Media Project at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. Between Sept. 1 and Oct. 7, 18,256 ads aired, which researchers say averages to one ad airing somewhere in Wisconsin every two minutes. Nevada came in second with 17,777 television ads aired during the same five-week period.

The race between Sen. Russ Feingold (D), a three-term incumbent, and Oshkosh businessman Ron Johnson remains close, according to Pollster.com, which shows Mr. Johnson leading Senator Feingold, 50.8 to 44.6 percent.

Close races usually result in a war for television airtime, which becomes essential when races are close and fought “at the margins,” says Erika Franklin Fowler, director of the Wesleyan Media Project.

“In this case, in a hotly contested race, the margin matters. Therefore, it is not surprising that Wisconsin is seeing an unusually large number of ads as each side ties to get the marginal advantage needed to win,” she says.

Moreover, the high volume of television ads is evidence that the coffers of both campaigns are healthy, says Charles Franklin, a cofounder of Pollster.com and a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Yet large amounts of campaign money have flowed into races that are even tighter than the one in Wisconsin. Why, then, has Wisconsin seen more ads? The state consists of a wide swath of relatively small media markets, so airtime costs less than in more populous states like New York or California.

"A lot of money is spent but it buys you a lot more ads," says Mr. Franklin. "Money goes further here."

What organizations are funding the television ads on both sides has become a major issue in the race. At a debate held last week in Wausau, Feingold called a US Supreme Court ruling this year that loosened the rules allowing third party organizations to spend money for campaigns “easily one of the worst decisions in the history” of the court. It “allows outside groups with no accountability to exert dangerous influence on Wisconsin’s race,” he said.

He cited an attack ad directed at his campaign from the US Chamber of Commerce, a private, probusiness organization that accuses Feingold of supporting extravagant federal spending measures. Likewise, Johnson accused Feingold of allowing third party advertising from MoveOn.org, a left-leaning advocacy group, and labor unions. Both sides demanded that the other to disclose the interest groups that provide support to the advertising.

According to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, in September Feingold wrote several liberal advocacy groups, including MoveOn, and asked that they not run ads on his behalf. MoveOn Communications Director Ilyse Hogue said last week the group would no longer be running ads for Feingold in Wisconsin.

Wesleyan researchers report that Johnson led Feingold in televisions spending during the reported five-week period, $3.9 million to $2.9 million. Republican-leaning groups spend $625,000 for ads supporting Johnson’s candidacy.

In total, 57 percent of the ads, or 10,439, favor Johnson, compared to 43 percent, or 7,817, favoring Feingold, the researchers say.

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