by Stewart Boss | September 5, 2012
It’s no secret now that the money gap between Republicans and Democrats in North Carolina has exploded in the 2012 election cycle. And when it comes to swing state legislative races, caucus leaders in the General Assembly are counted on to use their fundraising operations to boost their party’s candidates.
Republicans had the good fortune to take power in Raleigh in 2010, putting them in charge of drawing new legislative maps during the redistricting process. The new political maps for the next decade now heavily favor Republican candidates. According to an analysis by the North Carolina FreeEnterprise Foundation, there are only 10 swing state House races and five swing state Senate races where the district population should make the seat a genuinely competitive tossup.
North Carolina has a Democratic governor (for now), but a veto-proof GOP majority in the state Senate and a nearly veto-proof majority in the state House means that Republicans have been dictating the agenda in Raleigh for nearly two years. Winning the swing races is critically important if Democrats want to regain power anytime soon, but Democrats generally have to be able to compete financially in the swing races to have a shot at winning them.
Based on the fundraising totals for the caucus leaders in the General Assembly, Republican money is going to make it difficult for Democrats to be competitive in many of those tossup races.
“The Republican leadership have no real challengers in their districts, so they’re able to use their money to help candidates in swing races,” said Carter Wrenn, a veteran GOP strategist in North Carolina. “That’s where the fundraising gap is starkest. And you have to give [Senate President Pro Tempore Phil] Berger credit, because he’s been working hard.”
The process works like this: the campaign committees for top legislative leaders are allowed to send unlimited amounts of money to their political parties. The parties are then able to give unlimited amounts to other candidates, bypassing the state laws that limit individual donations to candidates of $4,000 per election.
The parties are then spending their money on a variety of services in these targeted races, such as candidate and opposition research, voter election tabulation research, and polling. From there they build out a communications plan that may involve cable TV, direct mail, radio, etc., depending on what the initial research shows them it will take to win.
Unfortunately, the most recent fundraising numbers add up to a not-so-pretty picture for Democrats. “When [former Democratic Senate Majority Leader Marc] Basnight was raising $4 million a year, someone like Art Pope was just leveling the playing field,” Wrenn said. “But now you have Republicans raising a lot of money in the House and Senate on top of independent expenditures while the Democrats aren’t raising much money at all.”
|Fundraising Totals||House Speaker Thom Tillis||House Minority Leader Joe Hackney||Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger||Senate Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt|
|Raised this Election Cycle||$945,942||$271,641||$974,331||$138,609|
|Cash on Hand(6/30/2012)||$491,876||$185,247||$770,308||$44,805|
Second quarter fundraising reports give us a glimpse of what the money landscape will look like this fall. At the start of July, Berger had $770,000 in cash on hand—more than 17 times what Senate Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt had in the bank at that point. In comparison, House Minority Leader Joe Hackney has been more competitive with House Speaker Thom Tillis, but the Democrat’s war chest was still less than half of what Tillis had in the bank at the end of June.
In June, Tillis gave $200,000 to the N.C. Republican Party in June. Hackney gave $50,000 to the N.C. Democratic Party’s House Caucus in June, but he has the benefit of not running for re-election this fall.
“Speaker Tillis is clearly showing that he can go out and raise money, but money is going to flow to whoever is holding power,” said Brad Crone, a longtime North Carolina Democratic campaign consultant. “The ability to hold the gavel is going to determine who has the advantage in raising money.”
Hackney’s absence from the legislature after this year could leave an even deeper void for Democratic fundraising efforts. House Democrats also lost a strong fundraiser in state Rep. William Wainwright, who passed away unexpectedly in July.
Several current Democratic state legislators may be able to help ease the party’s fundraising woes. Crone pointed to strong fundraisers such as Deborah Ross, Rick Glazier, Michael Wray, and Joe Tolson on the House side, as well as Josh Stein and Dan Blue on the Senate side, as leaders who are going to be increasingly important for the party’s future efforts to compete financially against a Republican majority.
Crone also singled out Rockingham mayor Gene McLaurin, who is running for state Senate in District 25, as a candidate who “could bring a lot to the table and help Democrats reach out to the business community.”
The gap in fundraising between Berger and Nesbitt in the state Senate is perhaps the most troubling example of how Democrats in the legislature are coming up short against Republicans this year.
“It’s not because Nesbitt isn’t trying,” Crone said. “People have already given to the convention, the presidential race, the governor’s race. We’re in a down economy, and everybody’s tapped out right now.”
If there is a path to re-building a Democratic majority in the state legislature in the near future, it will take money to get there.
In Senate District 50, Republican state Sen. Jim Davis defeated Democratic incumbent state Sen. John Snow—who had held the seat for three terms—by just 161 votes in 2010. The N.C. Republican Party, Civitas Action, Real Jobs NC, and the Davis campaign spent nearly $1 million to oust Snow in the GOP wave of 2010.
Snow is running again this year to take back his old seat. The state’s western-most district was left essentially intact after redistricting, setting up an unusual and exciting 2012 re-match. But if Democrats can’t pull together the financial resources to help their candidate push back against another onslaught of conservative money, Snow will have a tough time beating Davis and reclaiming his seat. And in the long haul, North Carolina Democrats will have a tough time reversing their minority status in the General Assembly.