by Stewart Boss | July 16, 2012
It’s only July, but North Carolinians are already getting inundated with political ads like never before. The state’s new position as a presidential battleground has drawn millions of dollars from the Obama and Romney campaigns in recent months, and the state remains a genuine tossup according to recent polls. The big unknown factor to pay attention to in 2012 will be the extent to which outside groups target North Carolina races.
The GOP Strategy
National Republicans and North Carolina conservative funder Art Pope spent huge sums of money two years ago to help ensure a GOP takeover of the North Carolina General Assembly. Pope and his network of conservative groups spent $2.2 million on 22 legislative races in 2010, winning 18 of them for “a stunning 82% win rate.” The over-arching purpose was to control the redistricting process in 2011. As Jane Mayer wrote in her profile for The New Yorker of Art Pope’s political operations, the idea was to get more bang for their buck by “leveraging victories in cheap local races into a means of shifting the balance of power in Washington.”
The strategy worked, and the 2010 election was a test run for how outside spending could change the dynamics of North Carolina politics. Republican majorities in the state House and Senate essentially cemented their party’s control of the legislature with new maps while also ensuring that at least four of the seven North Carolina Democrats in Congress would be drawn into impossible or difficult reelection contests in 2012.
And now the Republican strategy is about to come full circle. The conservative outside groups that helped put the GOP in charge of the state legislature are getting ready to open up their wallets again to take out the North Carolina Democrats in Congress who hung on to their seats in 2010 but are now even more vulnerable under new maps.
8th District Preview
If you want to get a sense of what the next four months are probably going to be like for those imperiled North Carolina Democrats, look no further than the gobs of outside money from national conservative groups that have poured into the GOP primary runoff race in the 8th District.
According to The Charlotte Observer, the $1.6 million in outside money that has been dumped into the 8th District is the third highest in the country. The current contest is between former congressional aide Richard Hudson, who has the support of the Republican Party establishment, and Iredell County commissioner and dentist Scott Keadle, who has garnered Tea Party support. In the first round of the primary in May, Hudson captured 32% of the vote compared to 22% for Keadle.
Here’s the breakdown for independent expenditures for the two GOP runoff candidates for the 8th District:
|Club for Growth||Keadle||$711,000|
|American Dental Association||Keadle||$65,000|
|Young Guns Action Fund||Hudson||$525,000|
|American Action Network||Hudson||$300,000|
The Club for Growth, which generally backs Tea Party candidates more committed to principles of limited government, has also bundled $191,000 in contributions from individuals for Keadle. That accounts for roughly half of the money raised from individuals for Keadle, who has also given $50,000 of his own money to his campaign. Young Guns Action Fund is the super PAC closely linked to U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor that has backed Republican establishment candidates. American Action Network, a 501(c)(4) action tank that supports putting “center-right ideas into action,” purchased a 750-point media buy in the Charlotte area for an ad called “Layers” that attacked Keadle’s record.
Outside spending this year now adds up to $825,000 for Hudson and $776,000 for Keadle. Compare that to how much the candidates have raised for their actual campaigns so far this year, and it’s pretty scary. Hudson’s campaign has raised $731,000, while Keadle has raised $740,000. So, that means both of the GOP campaigns in the 8th District are on track to beOUTSPENT by outside groups – before the primary runoff. That’s a big deal.
As few as roughly 13,000 voters are expected to participate in the typically low turnout runoff race, but these conservative groups are investing hundreds of thousands to affect the outcome. The winner on July 17 will face off against U.S. Rep. Larry Kissell, who is widely viewed as one the most vulnerable incumbent Democrats in Congress. His redrawn district is now significantly more Republican, and his recent positions on key votes have sparked a backlash (and the prospect of a write-in candidate) among his Democratic supporters.
The huge levels of outside spending in the 8th District this summer are likely to become the new norm in the rest of North Carolina this fall.
For the general election, the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) has already reserved $1.2 million in airtime to help defeat Kissell, while the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) has reserved $1 million for TV ads in October to help him defend his seat. Regardless of who wins the runoff, conservative groups are going to be lining up behind the NRCC to dump money into this race to crush Kissell and help Republicans pick up a seat in the House. It’s not clear yet if there are any liberal/progressive groups beyond the DCCC that are prepared to do the same.
U.S. Rep. Mike McIntyre faces a similarly difficult reelection contest against Republican state Senator David Rouzer in the 7th District, which is more Republican under new maps. The DCCC and NRCC are already reserving airtime for the fall here, so it’s safe to say that McIntyre will also face an avalanche of outside money from national conservative groups.
North Carolina’s other two vulnerable Democratic congressmen – Heath Shuler in the 11th District and Brad Miller in the 13th District – both decided not to run in 2012. Shuler’s former chief of staff Hayden Rogers captured the Democratic nomination in the hopes of succeeding his former boss, and he recently earned the DCCC’s “Red to Blue” designation in a signal that his campaign is highly competitive for November. But there’s a reason that even a three-term Blue Dog Democrat like Shuler decided not to run. The GOP runoff in the 11th District has not yet attracted outside money, but that could easily change for the general election since the new district heavily favors Republicans. Miller’s seat has been all but forfeited to Republican George Holding, the former U.S. Attorney General. Holding’s super PAC, American Foundations Committee, spent $550,000 to defeat his primary challenger.
Not surprisingly, Kissell, McIntyre, and Rogers have all tacked to the right in the last few months in an effort to create some distance between their campaigns and the Democratic Party. All three have announced that they do not plan on endorsing Obama or attending the Democratic National Convention (yes, they’re aware that the convention is being held in their state). But these are Democrats running in conservative districts who are nervously preparing to get pummeled by relentlessly negative TV attack ads funded by conservative groups for the next four months.
Around the country, outside spending is already shaking up the dynamics of everything from the presidential contest right down to state legislative races. Who these outside groups support and how much money they decide to spend is going to have a big impact on who represents the people of North Carolina next year.