Ad Backing Democratic Senate Candidate Could Be Republican Primary Mischief

Feb 6, 2020

RALEIGH — A newly formed political committee with Republican connections has started running television ads that praise a Democratic U.S. Senate candidate, causing some to suggest the ads represent GOP interference in her primary next month.

The Faith and Power PAC, which organized just last week under federal election rules, is sponsoring ads slated to air beginning Thursday in at least four North Carolina TV markets promoting state Sen. Erica Smith.

The commercial, which the PAC posted online, highlights Smith's support for initiatives that find favor among the most left-leaning Democrats, including a government-run “Medicare for All” plan and the “Green New Deal."

“Who's the Democrat for U.S. Senate endorsed by progressives and unions? Erica Smith,” the ad's narrator says. “Erica Smith is the real deal. Vote Democrat Erica Smith for U.S. Senate, the only proven progressive.”

On their face, the ad buys would appear to be a lifeline to Smith, who was far behind Democratic rival Cal Cunningham in fundraising at the start of 2020. Cunningham is running his own ad and is the subject of commercials from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and a veterans' PAC.

But details about the PAC, which can receive unlimited amounts from donors, suggest it is something other than a pro-Democrat organization. The company buying the ads on behalf of Faith and Power, called Neylan and Partners, worked previously for Carly Fiorina's GOP presidential campaign and for conservative-leaning policy groups, according to campaign records. A phone message left with Neylan wasn't immediately returned.

The PAC names a northern Virginia bank favored by Republican presidential candidate committees in years past to hold its money.

Thomas Mills, a longtime North Carolina Democratic consultant not involved with any of the candidates, called the ad buy “clearly Republican meddling in a Democratic primary."

Such intervention is “more common than people realize,” Mills said in an interview, adding that the ad could help build Smith's name recognition among Democratic primary voters.

Boosting Smith's candidacy could hurt Cunningham, who may be forced to spend what he'd otherwise keep for a general election. Republican incumbent Thom Tillis, the heavy favorite to win the GOP primary, reported having $5.3 million in his campaign coffers entering the new year, or three times what Cunningham had. Tillis is one of the national Democrats' top targets to unseat in November.

Smith didn't immediately respond to the ad purchases, and Cunningham's campaign declined to comment. Three other Democrats are seeking the March 3 nomination.

The state Democratic Party, which is neutral in the primary, says Republicans are trying to distract voters from Tillis. "Voters should decide who our state’s nominee for U.S. Senate will be to challenge Senator Tillis — not outside Republican operatives,” party spokesman Robert Howard said in a release.

Faith and Power lists a private mail box in Jacksonville, North Carolina, as its address. There was no response Thursday to a message sent to Faith and Power's email address seeking comment. Repeated calls to the PAC's phone number did not go through. Faith and Power lists the group's treasurer as Ezekiel Patterson. A registered voter with the same name is a registered Republican in Union County, a nearly four-hour drive from Jacksonville.

A super PAC can't coordinate activity with candidates, but it ultimately has to disclose its donors.

Faith and Power is paying $442,000 for commercials running over the next two weeks on the three network affiliates in Charlotte, according to records that stations file online with the Federal Communications Commission. At least another $113,000 has been spent on Raleigh-area stations, the records show. Other buys are happening in the Greensboro-Winston-Salem and eastern North Carolina markets.