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In crowded NC primaries, GOP congressional candidates are bankrolling their own campaigns

13th district Congressional candidate Fred Von Canon has spent about $700,000 of his own money on his campaign. His TV ads pledge to decline the salary paid to members of Congress.
Von Canon Campaign
13th district Congressional candidate Fred Von Canon has spent about $700,000 of his own money on his campaign. His TV ads pledge to decline the salary paid to members of Congress.

Republican candidates for Congress are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars of their own money to buy TV ads. The self-funded campaigns are making it more costly to win a seat representing North Carolina in Congress.

Turn on your TV this month, and you’ll be deluged with ads promoting Congressional candidates you’ve probably never heard of before. Many of them feature a similar message, promising to take a tougher approach to border security.

The ads are more likely to attack President Joe Biden than the candidates’ opponents in the March GOP primary. That’s because many of them have more opponents that they could mention in a 30-second TV spot.

Thanks to new Republican-friendly redistricting lines and a pair of departing incumbents, newcomers will fill at least five of North Carolina’s 14 seats in the U.S. House next year. That dynamic has prompted 34 different Republicans to run for the five seats. In the 13th Congressional District that wraps around the Triangle, 14 candidates will be on the ballot.

It’s hard to identify any frontrunners in a field this big, according to Western Carolina University political scientist Chris Cooper.

"What little bit of polling we've seen has only showed one consistent trend — and that is that most voters just don't know," Cooper said. "They're just not paying attention to these primaries."

Many of the candidates are reaching deep into their own pockets to get voters to pay attention. Fourteen of the candidates have so far spent at least $50,000 of their own money on their campaigns — totaling more than $4 million combined.

The biggest spender so far is state Rep. John Bradford of Mecklenburg County with $1.25 million of his own money. The founder of a rental property management company is running for the seat currently held by Congressman Dan Bishop. He faces five opponents, including pastor Mark Harris, who’s best known for his campaign’s role in a 2018 election fraud scandal.

In the Triangle’s 13th District, businessman Fred Von Canon is the top spender. The owner of a Wake Forest software training company has spent more than $700,000 on his campaign. He alludes to his finances in a TV ad that suggests money won't influence him in Congress.

"I won't take a salary as your congressman, so you can be sure I won't bow to lobbyists, liberals or even other Republicans," he says in the ad.

Three of Von Canon’s opponents are also spending hundreds of thousands to bankroll their campaigns. They include Smithfield attorney Kelly Daughtry, former prosecutor Brad Knott and physician Josh McConkey. Knott's campaign is also supported by a Super PAC, largely funded with $500,000 from a Knott family member who is a New York investor.

State Rep. Erin Paré of Holly Springs was also running before she dropped out in November. She told the WUNC Politics Podcast that money was one reason she decided to seek re-election to the state House instead.

"Frankly, we would have had to spend our entire life savings on this race," Paré said. "And to me, that's not a smart thing to do when you have kids at home. It’s a very expensive race — I would imagine one of the most expensive in the state, maybe even in the country."

A recent poll found that big spenders like Von Canon and Daughtry are leading their opponents. But 30% of the people polled were undecided, and no candidate had enough support to avoid a runoff.

Paré says she might have still won, but the race seemed too risky. Cooper says money isn’t always the deciding factor.

"It's a way to get you in the race, it's a way to say that you are a contender, but it's not simply the case that the person with the most money wins," he said. "So, if your money comes from self-financing, obviously, it spends the same as money that comes directly from voters. But it doesn't signify the same kind of strength."

Most of the congressional candidates have never held an elected office before. That makes it hard to know what to expect if they go to Congress, Cooper says.

"Take a look at say Addison McDowell, somebody who got the Trump endorsement in the 6th Congressional District," Cooper said. "How is he going to be as a legislator? Well, we just don't have a lot of clues."

The reliance on ads also makes it hard for voters to distinguish between candidates, according to political analyst Anna Beavon Gravely.

"I think you get caught up in in an ad world where everything is super heightened and super intense," she said. "And it's like ‘I get elected or the world burns,’ and that's basically how it is in every single ad."

Some of the ads are coming from out-of-state political action committees and national conservative groups like Club For Growth and GOPAC, the latter of which is backing House Speaker Tim Moore in the 14th District and N.C. Rep. Grey Mills in the 10th. Americans For Prosperity is backing Mills' opponent, Pat Harrigan.

Club For Growth has spent about $600,000 on ads attacking former Congressman Mark Walker in the Triad, and it’s backing former N.C. State football player Bo Hines in that 6th District race. Gravely says the group has notched wins in North Carolina before.

"Club for Growth’s entire strategy is to pick their version and their brand of Republican coming out of a primary," she said. "We saw that happen with the (2022) Senate primaries with Ted Budd, and with Pat McCrory and Mark Walker."

Club For Growth backed Budd in that 2022 primary, and he's now a U.S. senator.

The short window between the March primary and the congressional districts being redrawn last October has left campaigns with little time to raise money from supporters. And because the open districts are drawn to favor Republicans, the winners of the five primaries are almost certain to win in November.

Voters prepare to vote at the Parkwood Volunteer Fire Department in Durham, North Carolina, on Election Day on Nov. 8, 2022.
Cornell Watson/ for WUNC
for WUNC
Voters prepare to vote at the Parkwood Volunteer Fire Department in Durham, North Carolina, on Election Day on Nov. 8, 2022.

Congressional candidates' big personal financing

Here's how much Republican candidates for Congress have spent so from their own bank accounts for their campaigns, according to Federal Elections Commission filings:

13th District

  • Fred Von Canon — $710,000
  • Kelly Daughtry — hasn't filed a campaign finance disclosure yet, but she spent $2.9 million of her own money on a 2022 campaign and has so far bought hundreds of thousands of dollars in TV ads.
  • Josh McConkey — $250,000
  • Brad Knott — $150,000 from himself; a Super PAC supporting his campaign with ads is backed by $500,000 from private equity investor Thomas Knott of New York.
  • DeVan Barbour — $20,000
  • Nine other candidates — $0

6th District

  • Christian Castelli — $500,000
  • Bo Hines — $101,500
  • Mary Ann Contogiannis — $86,600
  • Jay Wagner — $50,000
  • Mark Walker — $0
  • Addison McDowell — $0

8th District

  • Rep. John Bradford — $1.25 million
  • Union County Commissioner Allan Baucom — $250,000
  • Leigh Brown — $100,000
  • Mark Harris — $50,000

10th District

  • Pat Harrigan — $500,000
  • Rep. Grey Mills — $250,000
Colin Campbell covers politics for WUNC as the station's capitol bureau chief.
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