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These fact checks of North Carolina politics are a collaboration between PolitiFact and WRAL. You can hear them Wednesdays on WFAE's Morning Edition.

Fact Check: Cunningham's Claim About No Special Interest-Funding Could Be Misleading


Former North Carolina state lawmaker Cal Cunningham is campaigning to be the Democratic nominee against Republican U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, and he wants to send a message – that he won’t be a pawn of big businesses.

So, he’s not taking money from corporate political action committees. He tweeted this summer that means his campaign is funded by people like you – not the special interests. WRAL’s Paul Specht joins WFAE's "Morning Edition" host Lisa Worf to assess these claims.

LISA WORF: So, is this a big deal for Cunningham to turn down money from corporate PACs?

PAUL SPECHT: Experts we spoke with said no. It's something that you're going to hear from a lot of Democrats who will say, "I'm not taking money from corporate PACs. I'm a man of the people or a woman of the people," etc. But in this case, it's unlikely that Cunningham would have received corporate PAC money to begin with.

Experts we spoke with said corporate PACs typically give to incumbents or they give to Republicans or Democrats running in safe Democratic states. Cunningham doesn't meet many of those requirements. He's running against a Republican who does take corporate PAC money. He is a newcomer. He hasn't even won the Democratic nomination yet, and he's in a swing state. And so it wouldn't necessarily be worthwhile for a corporate PAC to invest in him at this point because he hasn't won.

WORF: But you did rate this claim mostly false. How come, since he isn't taking money from corporate PACs?

SPECHT: There are various ways to get money that originates from corporations. Another is to take money from corporate CEOs or corporate executives — which he has taken — and another is to take money from PACs that get their money from corporations, which is the case here. And so on balance, that's why we believed two out of three of those cases, we rated this mostly false.

WORF: So Cunningham has raised $1.7 million so far. How much money are we talking about coming from these PACs tied to senators?

Cal Cunningham
Credit Cal Cunningham campaign
Cal Cunningham

SPECHT: He's received tens of thousands from these Senate leadership PACs. The one tied to Se. Warner has called Forward Together PAC. They donated $10,000. There's another one, Keystone PAC, that gave either $5,000 or $10,000. The list goes on for, I think, close to 10 PACs tied to senators that have given, you know, $5,000-$10,000.

WORF: But as the Center for Responsive Politics pointed out in your article, I mean, doesn't that mean that Cunningham would be more indebted to those senators than to the companies themselves who indirectly gave this contribution?

SPECHT: In theory. It's possible. But I like to think of it this way: If a bill comes up and it's going to impose new regulations on Amazon and Amazon donated to Mark Warner's PAC, what is Mark Warner going to ask Carl Cunningham to do if Cunningham were to make it to the Senate? There's still that tie. It doesn't necessarily matter, you know, that Cal didn't receive the money directly.

He received it indirectly from someone who still could be seen as having influence over him. Cunningham has received thousands of dollars from various business executives. You know, for example, the CEO of Blue Shield California, which is very similar to Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina — a health care company — gave Cunningham money and I believe maxed out to him.

WORF: And maxing out is $2,800?

SPECHT: That's right.

WORF: Now, there are some who would say, "Well, you know, this CEO is giving money from his personal account. It's possible that the CEO of Blue Shield California, just likes Cal Cunningham's foreign policy or his stance on reproductive rights." And that may be true. We don't know. But it could also be true that he's donating to Cal Cunningham to help his business, to ensure that one day Cunningham doesn't vote for single payer or Medicare for all. We don't know.

WORF: Now, I mean, is there any idea how much of his donations may be coming from business executives?

SPECHT: I don't have that number in front of me, but I would encourage listeners to go to opensecrets.org. That's a website that tracks money in politics. And you'll be able to go to a page that shows how much money is going to each Senate candidate in North Carolina. It'll show Thom Tillis has received lots of corporate PAC money. It'll show Cal Cunningham hasn't received any corporate PAC money, but he's received money from ideological and labor PACs, which are sort of special interests in their own right.

These Fact Checks are part of a collaboration between the WRAL, PolitiFact and Duke University’s Reporters’ Lab. You can hear them now every Wednesday on WFAE’s "Morning Edition."