The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Congressional campaigns waste millions of dollars airing TV ads outside their districts

Chances are, if you’ve see a television ad for a congressional candidate this year, it wasn’t even meant for you.

More than $111 million has been spent on broadcast television ads for U.S. House candidates since Labor Day, but more than $80 million of that went to ads airing outside the candidates’ districts, according to data by Targeted Victory

Television markets in the U.S. are divided into 210 areas that don’t usually line up with congressional districts; often they often cross state borders. Candidates in districts that border major metro areas but don’t include them, like two districts in Arizona and Texas that are detailed below, have to pay to play their ads in the city’s TV market to reach their voters, but they’re also spending millions for people who can’t vote for them because they live in the city.

We looked at U.S. Senate and gubernatorial races last week, but since those races are statewide, broadcast TV ad buys tend to be more effective than for the House.

According to data compiled by Kantar CMAG and NCC Media, these are districts where the most money has been spent on ads that aired outside the district:

1. Arizona’s 1st District

This massive district stretches from Four Corners in the north down through Flagstaff to the edges of the Phoenix and Tucson metro areas. More than $6.4 million has been wasted on ads here, since the candidates, Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D) and Andy Toobin (R), have to pay to air on TVs in the state’s big population centers their district curls around.

2. Georgia’s 12 District

Georgia is split into 10 different TV markets, several which also cover parts of other states. Rep. John Barrow (D) and Rick Allen (R) have paid the price for that, spending $3.7 million on ads outside their district.

3. Minnesota’s 8th District

Minnesota’s 8th District covers northeastern portion of the state, but $3.6 million has been wasted by candidates there. Rep. Rick Nolan (D), Stewart Mills (R), and Ray “Skip” Sandman (Green Party) have to make TV buys that air elsewhere in Minnesota, in part of Wisconsin, and even in some cases, Canada.

4. Illinois’ 12 District

This relatively compact district is situated in two TV markets that spread out across multiple states. Rep. William Enyart (D), Mike Bost (R), and Paula Bradshaw (Green Party) have wasted $3.3 million on ads that play in Missouri, Kentucky, and even Tennessee.

5. Texas’ 23rd District

Texas’ 23rd District has the same problem as Arizona’s 1st: it’s on the outskirts of two major metro areas. Rep. Pete Gallego (D) and Will Hurd (R) have to pay San Antonio and El Paso TV ad prices, even though they don’t represent those cities. More than $3 million has been wasted in this race.

6. West Virginia’s 3rd District

West Virginia’s 3rd District borders three other states, and unsurprisingly, its TV markets spill over as well. Rep. Nick Rahall (D) and Evan Jenkins (R) have wasted $2.4 million on ads there.

7. Minnesota’s 7th District

Minnesota’s 7th District covers nearly all of the state’s western border and shares TV markets with Minneapolis and North and South Dakota. More than $2.3 million has been wasted in the race between Rep. Collin Peterson (D) and Torrey Westrom (R).

8. New York’s 19th District

More than $2 million has been wasted in New York’s 19th District race, but it could be much higher. Rep. Chris Gibson (R) and Sean Eldridge’s (D) district dips down into the New York City TV market, which is the largest in the country. Candidates from New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey all run ads in the market.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated the boundaries of the New York City market.