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National Politics|By Amy Walter, March 25, 2014

Last week, the New York Times reported that the Senate Majority PAC, an independent group that supports Senate Democrats, would be spending $3 million over the next two weeks in key Democratic-held Senate races. The early burst of spending (remember we are still a good 220+ days from Election Day) is in direct response to the year-long barrage of attack ads aimed at Senate Democrats by the Koch brothers-backed group, Americans For Prosperity (AFP).

The attack ads by AFP have taken their toll on Democrats. “We have seen these ads impact the job approval numbers of some incumbents and the ballot tests in almost all of these races,” wrote our Senate editor Jennifer Duffy.

According to the data provided to us by our friends at Kantar Media/CMAG, AFP has run almost three times as many spots in key Senate races as Senate Majority PAC. Here’s how it stacks up:

Spot count equals the total number times ads have aired. While not a perfect means of comparing ad activity, it’s a fairer measure to use than spending because rates vary widely from market to market and even within a market, from advertiser to advertiser. Ad rates in Boston are significantly higher than ad rates in Fort Smith, Arkansas, for example, and within Fort Smith, one group may pay more than another.

More important than making Democrats and Democratic groups spend money is the fact that they are making them spend it earlier than ever. Many Democrats remember their candidates getting pounded with early ads in 2010 by the Crossroads groups. However, “early” is a relative term. According to Kantar Media/CMAG, those ads didn’t begin until the summer of 2010.

One common perception of the 2012 campaign was that early ad spending by the Obama campaign and the pro-Obama SuperPAC Priorities USA was critical in defining Mitt Romney as a heartless capitalist who was more interested in making money than helping regular people. Academics John Sides and Lynn Vavreck dismiss this conclusion, arguing that the early summer 2012 ad campaign produced no perceptible uptick in the polls for Obama. Despite the June ad splurge, “across all 210 media markets during the sixty-one days in June and July…Obama had a 2:1 [ad spending] advantage (or better) only 15% of the time,” write Sides and Vavreck in their book chronicling the 2012 campaign, The Gamble, “and Romney had this advantage only 23% of the time.” Bottom line, say Sides and Vavreck, “because neither candidate had a durable advantage [in ad spending] it was difficult to move the polls in either candidate’s favor.”

In other words, when it comes to early ad spending, the only way to really move the needle is to go big or go home. And, the Koch brothers-backed AFP is doing just that.

The question now is whether the damage is permanent, or whether it can be reversed once Democrats take to the airwaves. Can three weeks of advertising help undo the damage that 14 months of advertising has wrought? Was going up this early enough to make an indelible impression? Or has it simply fast-forwarded the electorate to the polarized state we’d inevitably see in the fall?

AFP is taking a gamble in spending this much money this early. But, if you are worth more than $80 billion, it’s not a very risky one to take. The risk is for Democrats who are going to have to spend earlier than ever to be able to have the cash to stay competitive through the fall. AFP's goal is to drive Democrats' numbers down - both poll numbers and cash-on-hand totals. A couple of points in the polls may be reversible, but the depletion of a bank account by $500,000 is arguably harder to recoup.