Third-Party Groups Crash Land On NC Politics
Correction This story has changed to reflect a correction in the amount of money that Arthur Pope and his company have given to political groups and candidates. Tomorrow is Election Day. And that means the end of a bumper year for negative political ads, mostly from third-party groups. Laura Leslie of North Carolina Public Radio looks into who's been paying for all those ads, and why it matters. Politics has never been a cheap pursuit. But the money flowing into this year's election is eye-popping. Nationwide, independent groups have already spent $284 million this year trying to help or hurt federal candidates. That's more than four times what they spent in the 2006 mid-term. A chunk of that change has found its way to North Carolina, where outside groups have targeted four Congressional races - all with Democratic incumbents in fairly conservative districts. The top money race so far is the 8th district, where Democrat Larry Kissell faces Republican Harold Johnson. They've each raised around a million dollars. But that's dwarfed by $3 million dollars spent independently so far. "You see it in increased negative mailers into legislative districts. You see it with increased radio and television spots," said Damon Circosta, who heads the North Carolina Center for Voter Education. "And typically what these folks do - these independent expenditure organizations do, is they go negative. They don't want the candidate that they're supporting to have to do the negative, the dirty work. So they do it for them." The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has spent more than $1 million attacking Republican Harold Johnson in his race against 8th District Congressman Larry Kissell. In Kissell's case, independent conservative groups with names like Americans for Job Security and the Center for Individual Freedom have spent about $1 million attacking him. Most independent groups are 527s, so they have to disclose where their money comes from, just like candidates do. But some groups have found ways around that. Americans for Job Security is what's called a business league - 501 c6. It can accept and spend unlimited amounts of money from individuals, corporations - anyone really - without revealing its sources. The Center for Individual Freedom doesn't have to disclose its donors, either. It's a 501 c4 - the political arm of a non-profit group. As long as the group's main purpose is not electioneering, it can keep its donors confidential. As of last week, hidden donor groups had injected $2.5 million into North Carolina's congressional races. Circosta, the campaign finance watchdog, says there are dozens of groups with innocuous sounding names. He says disclosure is the only way you can tell whether they're grassroots or Astroturf. "I think it's important that we are able to evaluate what messages we're receiving," he says. "They try to put themselves out as this broad coalition of folks coming together to talk about a public policy issue. When really what we're seeing is. . . it's usually one or two extremely wealthy individuals -- and even more scary than the individuals is corporations, directly from their corporate treasury." Corporations are legally allowed to dip into their treasuries, and they've been doing it for quite a while. But a recent Supreme Court ruling made that easier. The Citizens United ruling removed a lot of restrictions on how corporate money can be spent in an election. Corporations don't have to go through anyone any more to buy independent ads for or against a candidate. But most might prefer to remain anonymous to avoid negative publicity like this. North Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Andrew Whalen last week called for a statewide boycott of Variety Wholesalers, which owns several discounts stores. The reason? Variety Wholesalers is run by Republican Art Pope. Whalen accuses Pope of trying to buy the state Legislature. "Pope's company, Variety Wholesalers, has directed hundreds of thousands of dollars - profits taken from hardworking North Carolinians who shop at his stores - to fund organizations attacking Democratic candidates. And it's not just in one or two races, but it's in more than 20 legislative districts in 48 counties across the state. Pope has spent more than $2 million this year backing conservative groups like Civitas Action, Americans for Prosperity, and Real Jobs NC. Pope's company has given $200,000 so far this election cycle to Real Jobs NC, and $190,000 to Civitas Action. Pope personally has given about $75,000 directly to candidates and committees. He says everything he's done has been legal and fully disclosed. He thinks Democrats are looking for someone to blame for predicted losses on Election Day. "They also are worried that other individual citizens, as well as business large and small, may engage in their First Amendment rights, and support conservative causes, try to educate the public, or even directly support Republican candidates," he says. Democratic statehouse candidates are also under attack by the Republican State Leadership Committee, a national group whose top donors are the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Blue Cross Blue Shield, and Big Tobacco firms Altria and Reynolds. The Leadership's chief architect is Republican strategist Karl Rove. Its express goal is to put Republicans in charge of statehouses during redistricting next year. That could give the GOP an advantage nationwide for the next decade. Still, even though corporate money has been good to Republicans this year, Circosta says the party should be wary of it. "Money is agnostic. It does not care if you're a Democrat or a Republican. These folks are looking to buy democracy, and they'll go to whoever's selling," he says.