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GOP Group Admits To Meddling In NC's Democratic Senate Primary

Erica Smith ad
The fine print on this Erica Smith TV ad shows that it was purchased by Faith and Power PAC, which is supported by the GOP's Senate Leadership Fund.


The GOP’s Senate Leadership Fund admitted Friday to meddling in North Carolina’s Democratic Senate primary and said it “stole a page out of Chuck Schumer’s playbook.”

The Faith and Power PAC has been running TV ads praising state Sen. Erica Smith in her race against attorney and former state Sen. Cal Cunningham. The Senate Leadership Fund – aligned with U.S. Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell -- financially supported the Faith and Power PAC, which was first reported by The Hill.
The TV ads use grainy video footage of Smith, praising her as the more liberal candidate in the race. A mailer sent this week says Smith is “the proven progressive North Carolina needs” and highlights her support for the Green New Deal and Medicare for All.
“We stole a page out of Chuck Schumer’s playbook, and it’s been more successful than we could have imagined. Democrats are burning cash in a $13 million rescue mission for Cal Cunningham, who has proven to be a lackluster candidate with less money in the bank today than the beginning of the year,” said SLF president Steven Law in a statement.

The SLF said Law was flying out of the country Friday morning and couldn’t be interviewed.

The campaign of Sen. Thom Tillis -- the Republican incumbent -- on Friday denied any involvement.

“Our campaign has no knowledge of Faith and Power PAC and its structure other than what we have learned through news reports, though it appears to be a play out of the Democratic playbook from when they were spending millions of dollars trying to defeat Sen. Tillis in the 2014 Republican primary,” said Tillis campaign spokesman Andrew Romeo.

Cunningham has responded to the Faith and Power ads with a TV ad of his own, calling the ads “deceptive” and saying “they just aren’t true.”

The Cunningham ad shows a screen grab from a Faith and Power ad that asks a series of questions:

“Who will vote for the Green New Deal? Erica Smith, not Cal Cunningham.”

“Who will vote for Medicare for All? Erica Smith, not Cal Cunningham.”

“Who will stand up the gun lobby? Not NRA A-rated Cal Cunningham.”

The final question is “Who Will Stand up for the LGBTQ community? Only Erica Smith.”

There is some truth in the Faith and Power ad. Cunningham supports expanding the Affordable Care Act instead of Medicare For All. In an interview with WFAE last year, he said he supports efforts to fight climate change, but did not say he supports the Green New Deal.

But Cunningham has been endorsed by the gun-control group the Brady Campaign.

And while Erica Smith received the endorsement of Equality NC, an LGBTQ rights group, Cunningham’s campaign notes that he has the support of Greensboro businessman Bob Page’s Replacement PAC, which says the Faith and Power ad is “intended to mislead North Carolinians” and are “divisive.” Page, who is gay, has long been an LGBTQ advocate in the state.

Cunningham is supported by the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, which has angered Smith and some other progressives, who have said Washington should stay out of the race.

The Rev. William Barber wrote on Twitter on Thursday that “personally I think any of the US Senate candidates in NC would be better than Thom Tillis. But Dems -- & particularly the DSCC – are once again making the mistake of picking a candidate in the primary.”



Earlier this year, some polls showed that Cunningham and Smith were essentially tied. But a recent Survey USA Poll for WRAL shows Cunningham ahead of Smith, 42% to 17%. That’s despite the Faith and Power PAC ad blitz.

Cunningham’s campaign countered that the Faith and Power PAC shows that “Washington Republicans are terrified to run against Cal Cunningham.”

Their view is that Tillis and the GOP will attempt to make Cunningham be a liberal socialist in the general election, but their own support of Smith’s more progressive credentials undercuts that message.

The SLF suggested the Smith ads were common practice -- and payback.

It citedKay Hagan attackingTillis during his 2014 primary for him saying that Obamacare was a “great idea.”

And the SLF cited Democrat Claire McCaskill’s efforts to elevate Todd Aiken in the GOP Missouri Senate primary in 2012. McCaskill defeated the far-right Aiken in the general election.

McCaskill wrote in her book "Plenty Ladylike: A Memoir": “Using the guidance of my campaign staff and consultants, we came up with the idea for a ‘dog whistle’ ad, a message that was pitched in such a way that it would be heard only by a certain group of people. I told my team we needed to put Akin’s uber-conservative bona fides in an ad – and then use reverse psychology to tell voters not to vote for him. And we needed to run the hell out of that ad.”


Go behind the headlines with WFAE political reporter Steve Harrison in his weekly newsletter, Inside Politics. Steve will provide insight about and analysis of local and statewide politics. Readers will gain an understanding of political news on the horizon and why it matters. 

While you're at it, go ahead and take a listen to our companion podcast:“Inside Politics: The RNC in Charlotte,” hosted by Steve Harrison and Lisa Worf.


Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.