At the same time, self-financed candidates such as former eBay CEO Meg Whitman in California and Connecticut's Linda McMahon, the former head of World Wrestling Entertainment, have spent millions of their own money to run for office. Whitman has spent a record $142 million of her own money so far.
The crunch for commercial time has been such that local affiliates of NBC and ABC have begun selling commercial slots that are ordinarily reserved for national advertisers.
Coming off an abysmal 2009, local stations need any extra cash they can get.
Excluding political ads, local broadcast TV revenue fell from $16.1 billion in 2008 to $13.8 billion last year, a decline of 15 percent, according to Magna Global. The firm predicts an overall jump of more than 20 percent this year and says nearly half that increase comes from political ads.
The uptick brought by political campaigns is also registering at some of the country's biggest media companies.
CBS Corp., which owns 28 local stations, expects political revenue to hit nearly $200 million this year. Some of that total will come from the company's radio stations and billboards, but the vast majority is TV. CBS hasn't broken out the total during previous elections, but the company says 2010 will be a record.
Not all media are benefiting equally. Newspapers, for instance, get relatively few political ads — and those businesses still make up the bulk of large media companies including Gannett Co. and Tribune Co. And some TV stations fare better than their competitors because of how political parties and candidates are targeting their audiences.
"For the most part, the demographic that campaigns are looking for is 50 years and older, which is not in our wheelhouse, per se," says John Spinola, who manages WFLX in West Palm Beach, Fla. The station is an affiliate of Fox, the network of "The Simpsons" and "Family Guy." Spinola says political advertising has been "very good" but not "over-the-top good."
This despite that fact that WFLX's market is brimming with big-money campaigns. Tea party favorite Allen West is in one of the country's most expensive House races. Then there's the Senate campaign, which became a three-way race when Gov. Charlie Crist gave up on trying to beat tea party favorite Marco Rubio in the GOP primary and ran as an independent. Finally, Rick Scott, the tea party's choice for governor, has a campaign war chest of more than $48 million, most of it from his own wallet.
Another station manager in West Palm Beach, Steve Wasserman of WPTV, says the station will earn more from political ads in 2010 than it did in recent elections.
"When you have a hotly contested governor's race that's too close to call, and then a three-way Senate race besides, it does really get the juices flowing here," he says.