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Money Floods Local And State Races

Election day is just a few weeks away, and candidates running for office are in the final stretch to get their supporters to the polls. Presidential and congressional candidates are spending a lot of money in these final weeks, much of it from outside interest groups seeking to get their favorites elected. And that’s happening at the state and local levels too.

Jessica Jones: With campaign season in full swing, it’s almost impossible to miss the political ads that are flooding the airwaves.

TV ads: Walter Dalton’s policies haven’t worked. We need jobs, not higher taxes. North Carolina can do better. Tax breaks for lobbyists and corporations, while teachers get laid off. That’s what you get with Pat McCrory.

And the number of ads you’re seeing is directly proportional to the amount of money that’s flowing into local and state races. Republican strategist Carter Wrenn and Democratic strategist Gary Pearce say the best way to figure this out is by exercising your remote control.

Gary Pearce and Carter Wrenn: Turnin’ on the television set, sure, that’s it, that’s it. I mean how many mailers are you getting, and who’s paying for them, you know you can pay attention to that.

Pearce and Wrenn write a political blog together. They say money from outside groups has been flowing into state races for years. But since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2010 that tide has turned into a flood. That ruling allowed corporations to make unlimited campaign contributions and create Super PACs. Millions of dollars alone are being spent on the governor’s race. Pearce and Wrenn say that’s good for political consultants and TV stations selling ad time.

Pearce and Wrenn: I suspect it’s hard to buy time I don’t know. I don’t think it’s hard to buy time, but I think it’s like all laws of supply and demand, the price has gone up a lot.

It’s not just the governor’s race that attracts interest from outside groups. Back in 2010, Republicans gained power of both houses of the state legislature for the first time since Reconstruction. According to an analysis by the left-leaning non-profit Institute for Southern Studies, three Republican-leaning groups accounted for 75 percent of the money spent by special interests on state legislative elections. Chris Kromm is the institute’s executive director. He expects to see more of the same in this election.

Chris Kromm: Down to some of these smallest races, it’s clear this is going to be a record shattering year for money coming in and like the rest of the country, a lot of that money is going to be coming from these outside sources that’s increasingly having a big role in our elections.

That’s true, according to campaign finance reports filed just after the primary. One 527, the newly formed Republican-leaning Carolina Business Coalition Education Fund, spent more than 61 thousand dollars alone supporting Republican incumbent state Senator Neal Hunt. Another frequent Republican-leaning contributor is the North Carolina Chamber. Only one Democratic-leaning group stands out- Common Sense Matters, which supported Democratic school board candidates in Wake County. Kromm says the number of groups to track is multiplying.

Kromm: What’s interesting is that you’re seeing some of the same money sources behind them, but the actual groups that are taking out that tv ad you see or the radio spot is a different organization this time around. And what we’re still trying to get a handle on is a lot of the groups haven’t spent their money yet.

Some fundraising groups establish a network of their own organizations that include PACs and 527s to have a broader impact. Raleigh Republican businessman Art Pope got a lot of attention for doing that two years ago. Kromm says Pope’s groups haven’t been as active this year, though that could certainly change. But what’s clear is that money is pouring into a select group of races, including state Senate District 18. That’s where Republican candidate Chad Barefoot is taking on the Democratic incumbent, Senator Doug Berger. FCC reports show Barefoot bought nearly one hundred thousand dollars worth of ads from WTVD last month, and about 95 thousand dollars’ worth from WRAL.

Bob Phillips: When you think about what a lawmaker makes, 14 thousand dollars a year, and then you have that kind of money being spent it is mind-boggling.

Bob Phillips heads the North Carolina chapter of Common Cause, a nonpartisan advocacy organization. Common cause is what’s known as a social welfare 501 c4 group that can lobby for legislation. C4 groups can also contribute to political campaigns. Common Cause does not. But other c4s do, including the conservative Americans for Prosperity, and the liberal Progress North Carolina Action. Phillips says the problem is that C4s do not have to reveal who their corporate contributors are.

Phillips: When you had Citizens United it sort of like was the green light it opened the door and everybody thought well it’s all fair game and we’ll do it. But that’s a real danger again because a lot of this money is going into these c4s and we have no idea really who’s behind it.

Phillips says no politician will ever admit that a campaign contribution is to buy or curry, favor but he says what else would it be for? Republican strategist Carter Wrenn agrees that money can be corrupting in politics, but he doesn't think it's bad for campaigns.

Wrenn: It just means that there’s more things happening in campaigns. There’s more money and therefore there’s more different things done. A lot of people are critical of that. I’m not. I think more message is better than less message.

Wrenn’s fellow blog writer, Democratic strategist Gary Pearce, is less positive about the influence of money in politics. But he says there’s not much that can stop it from happening. Pearce says Republicans in the state are ahead when it comes to raising and using money in this post-Citizens United landscape.

Pearce: For Democrats in North Carolina, there are huge potential sources of money, and I suspect that what’s going to happen over the next cycle or two, people are going to figure out yeah, the old system is gone, but what there is out there is a lot of people who have been successful, who are concerned, who have money.

But Pearce says Democrats need to learn how to ask for more of it, just like Republicans do.

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