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Outside Attack Ads Underway In NC Senate Race

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During this year’s election season, the biggest prize in North Carolina is the U.S. Senate seat held by first-term Democrat Kay Hagan. Big money is already pouring in from both left and right, and attack ads are already on the air.

WFAE’s Ben Bradford joined Morning Edition host Kevin Kniestedt to discuss the Senate race, through the lens of one ad, in particular.


KNIESTEDT: Ben, who’s this ad from?

BRADFORD: It’s from a 501(c)(4)—

KNIESTEDT:  Those are independent groups that don’t have to disclose their donors.

BRADFORD: Right, they became big in politics after the Citizens United decision in 2010. And they’re not allowed to coordinate with campaigns, but they can air ads in favor or opposed to candidates. This one’s called Patriot Majority USA—it’s been around since 2005 and leans left. The group has spent $800,000 so far on airing this particular ad. And, as we heard in that bit of it you played, it attacks Tillis on health care, and says he’s in bed with insurance companies.

KNIESTEDT: And why are they attacking Tillis, specifically?

BRADFORD: Thom Tillis is the frontrunner in the Republican primary. He’s the current North Carolina House Speaker, which makes him the most visible candidate and the most experienced politician on the Republican side of the race. He’s receiving national support from Republican leaders like Karl Rove. And, he’s raised the most money among Republicans—with about $1.3 million on hand at the end of last year.

KNIESTEDT:  Let’s play a bit more of the ad, and you tell us about the claims in it.

AD: He’d let them deny coverage for pre-existing conditions and raise rates for women needing mammograms. Tillis supports a plan that would end Medicare as we know it and force seniors to spend up to $1,700 more for prescriptions.

BRADFORD: Three out of those four claims are popular provisions in the Affordable Care Act—a law, which we know is not nearly as popular in totality. Tillis wants to repeal of the health care law, so the ad’s accusing him of opposing those popular provisions.

KNIESTEDT:  Is that true?

BRADFORD: Politifact rates that part of the ad “mostly true.” I talked to Tillis campaign spokesman Jordan Shaw. Here's their side of it.

SHAW: We can’t move forward with anything else until we repeal Obamacare. [Tillis has] been very clear about that. But he’s also said the status quo that we had before the Affordable Care Act is not acceptable either.

BRADFORD: Tillis has said he’d vote for a clean repeal of the Affordable Care Act—in which case, these popular provisions would disappear. But, he’s also said that he favors replacing it with a different option. But, even there, he’s careful not to get pinned down on specific provisions he supports.

The other claim—that Tillis supports a plan to end Medicare as we know it—is a stretch. Politifact rated that part mostly false. He supported a large, House budget plan that would privatize Medicare years down the road, as well as later versions that watered that proposal down. But, he hasn’t publicly taken a stance on that provision.

KNIESTEDT: Why spend the money against a candidate who still has to compete in a primary? What if he loses the primary? Is that a waste?

BRADFORD: I think that would actually be an ideal scenario for Hagan supporters. Tillis’ opponents have each raised a few hundred thousand dollars and are more conservative, from the Tea Party mold. One of the banes of the Republican Party establishment the last few years has been Tea Party candidates beating more moderate opponents in the primary, and then losing the general when they lack mass appeal. I think Hagan supporters would like to see exactly that scenario. If they can undermine Tillis to make it happen, then great. If not, then maybe they weaken him coming into the general election.

KNIESTEDT:  We should also point out that money is coming from both directions. Conservative 501(c)(4)s have spent a lot of money against Hagan.

BRADFORD: Americans for Prosperity—which is heavily financed by the conservative Koch Brothers—has spent about $7 million on at least three ads against Hagan. So, the $800,000 from Patriot Majority is a response to it, but a comparative drop in the bucket. That said, Hagan has a far bigger war chest than Tillis. She’s had about $7 million of her own on hand at the end of last year, to Tillis little over a million.

KNIESTEDT:  Ads from both sides have focused on health care.

BRADFORD: Right, Republicans want to make Hagan’s support for the Affordable Care Act the main battleground of this campaign. She has a record on it while her opponents don’t—as we saw when we’re discussing Tillis’ stance. So, the Hagan attack ads try to tie her to both Obamacare and the president. Here’s how the most recent ends:

AD: Kay Hagan, taking care of Washington insiders, not North Carolina families. Tell Kay Hagan, that’s just wrong.

BRADFORD: Now, if you remember, the Tillis attack says he supports insurance companies, not North Carolina families. So, they’re really mirror images of each other. “Candidate X wants to protect special interests, not your family” because of their stance on the health care law.

And, I think they’re a great example of what we can expect in this race. The outside money, the attack ads, and the bold claims about opponents’ records and positions—they’re only going to escalate from here.