How many ads were sold

Far more political ads were sold in Atlanta and even Greenville from July to September than in the rest of South Carolina.

The difference reflects competitive races in Georgia and North Carolina that could determine who controls the U.S. Senate (Greenville's TV market includes much of western North Carolina).

City No. ads sold Money spent

Atlanta 12,491 $12,984,580

Charleston 3,755 $757,071

Columbia 3,625 $852,168

Greenville 8,149 $4,952,950

Source: TV station contracts.

Turn on the TV this time of year in South Carolina, and you'll meet a deluge of political ads - but only in certain parts of the state.

It all depends on how close you live to the state line.

North Carolina and Georgia are awash in political spending this year, fueled by close U.S. Senate races in those states and a competitive governor's race in Georgia. For months, candidates and outside groups have spent millions there to get on the air, even if people who can't vote for them see their ads, too.

Watch the local news in Greenville, for example, and you're more likely to see an ad about North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan or her challenger, Thom Tillis, than one about a political race in South Carolina.

TV stations in the Greenville market, whose signals reach up to Asheville, have sold 24 percent more ads tied to North Carolina's Senate race alone than they have for all of South Carolina's elections.

The stations sold nearly 4,600 spots, or 38 hours, connected to the North Carolina race from July to September, compared to about 3,600 spots, or 30 hours, for the South Carolina races - even though most of the TV market is south of the state line.

The influx of spending in North Carolina puts Greenville in a unique position: Stations in its market have sold more ads than Columbia and Charleston combined, and with nearly $5 million sold there, it's seen three times more spending.

The Post and Courier reviewed hundreds of TV station contracts to compile the figures, which include ads that have been booked but haven't yet hit the air. They also include issue ads paid for by outside groups not directly connected to the campaign.

This year's midterm elections are expected to be the most expensive ever, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks spending, and with two weeks to go, North Carolina's Senate race has already drawn more outside spending than any other Senate election in history.

The deluge of political spending nationally is owed largely to the 2010 Supreme Court case Citizens United, which found that spending in politics, like speech, is legally protected.

The ruling opened the floodgates for more spending - but it hasn't been spread evenly.

Nestled between two states with races that are among the nation's most-contested, South Carolina has so far been left out.

One station in Atlanta, for example, sold 4,100 ads from July to September, which was on its own more than was sold in either Charleston and Columbia. Charleston's four stations sold a combined 3,755 ads, and Columbia's sold 3,625.

"We're realizing that the Senate is more important than our senator, so people are willing to donate to someone running . in South Dakota rather than Lindsey Graham in South Carolina," Clemson political scientist David Woodard said. "It (South Carolina) is a red state. You just know what the outcome's going to be."

North Carolina and Georgia's are among the 10 most expensive Senate races this year, said Robert Maguire, a researcher for the Center for Responsive Politics. South Carolina, he said, isn't even close.

"Each dollar spent on races where the GOP incumbent is 18 to 20 points ahead of their Democratic opponent is a dollar not spent on a race that is neck-and-neck," Winthrop pollster Scott Huffmon said in an email.

This week's Post and Courier's Palmetto Politics Poll showed incumbent Sen. Lindsey Graham with a 20-point lead over Democratic challenger Brad Hutto, while Sen. Tim Scott has a 27-point lead in his race.

Meanwhile, states are seeing stark differences in the volume of third-party ads.

In Greenville, 68 percent of North Carolina-targeted ads came from outside groups. In Atlanta, 25 percent of ads were. And in South Carolina's top markets, just 8 percent of ads were paid for by third-party groups.

Who buys airtime matters for TV stations. Candidates for office can by law pay the lowest rate that a station offers any of its advertisers. But outside groups pay top dollar, leading to bidding wars to get on the air, which raises rates - and revenue - for stations.

That means that recent political spending in South Carolina - those running for governor, lieutenant governor and Senate races all announced ad buys during the past week - likely haven't done much to rates.

Still, sales elsewhere are "exceeding expectations" this year, said Wayne Freedman, vice president for sales at Raycom, which owns TV stations across the Southeast.

The sheer number of ads being sold has caused some issues for regular advertisers in other states: There are only so many ad slots in a day, and they're getting snapped up. In Greenville, for example, NBC affiliate WYFF no longer accepts every request for airtime that it gets, contracts show. The station didn't return a request for comment.

Markets in key states will only get tighter, experts say, as Election Day approaches and candidates and outside groups run out of time to get their messages out.

"There's a lot more coming," Maguire said.

Reach Thad Moore at (803) 446-5283.