As you well know !
In many of North Carolina’s primary elections for open seats in Congress, it’s outside special interest groups — and not the candidates themselves — who have dominated the ads and messaging. It’s happening in Democratic and Republican primaries alike, in dozens of races across the state, from Congress to City Council. Perhaps the biggest player is the Club For Growth, a Washington-based group that has been active in conservative circles for decades. The Club For Growth has spent millions on the Republican primary for U.S. Senate, a key race since the incumbent, Republican Sen. Richard Burr, is not seeking re-election. The Club for Growth is backing Rep. Ted Budd over former Gov. Pat McCrory. Election Day is on Tuesday for the primary, which will determine which candidates are on the ballot in November, when control of Congress and the N.C. General Assembly will be on the line. And while Budd has so far raised $4.5 million from supporters, Club For Growth has spent nearly twice as much helping out his campaign. The group has reported spending $6.2 million on pro-Budd ads, plus another $2.2 million on ads opposing McCrory. McCrory’s campaign has matched Budd’s in fundraising, also bringing in around $4.5 million, but the outside spending is lopsided heavily for Budd. Federal data shows there has been less than $1 million, combined, in outside spending that’s either anti-Budd or pro-McCrory. How does Club for Growth pick candidates? There are several other Republican primaries with fierce competition in North Carolina, but the Club For Growth appears to so far only be involved in one of them: The 13th District, which mostly covers the Raleigh suburbs in southern Wake County and Johnston County. It’s a swing district that is expected to be competitive in November, and there is no incumbent, so the primary could go a long way toward deciding who the area’s next member of Congress is. The Democratic primary is expected to be won either by Wiley Nickel, a state senator from Cary, or Sam Searcy, a former state senator from Holly Springs. In the GOP primary the Club For Growth is backing Bo Hines, a 26-year-old political newcomer who didn’t live in the district until a few weeks ago, but who does have the backing of both former Republican President Donald Trump and far-right North Carolina Rep. Madison Cawthorn. Hines is facing a crowded primary field that includes, among others, former Rep. Renee Ellmers, Johnston County attorney Kelly Daughtry and Cary pastor Chad Slotta. Cawthorn is himself facing a tougher-than-expected primary challenge, after many GOP leaders turned on him following a slew of recent scandals. The Club For Growth does not appear to have entered that race, on either side. The group is also not involved in the GOP primary for the northeastern District 1, which Republicans are hoping to flip in November following the retirement of longtime Democratic Rep. GK Butterfield. The Democratic primary in that race, like in NC-13, is mainly a race between a current state senator, Don Davis, and a former state senator, Erica Smith. So why pick Budd over McCrory, or choose to endorse Hines but not Cawthorn, even though the two have aligned with each other in the past? The group isn’t saying. “We don’t talk about specifics in terms of the endorsements,” said Joe Kildea, the group’s vice president of communications. Complicating matters is the fact that nearly all of the group’s money comes from donors outside of North Carolina. Its Super PAC is largely funded by a small group of ultra-wealthy conservative activists in the Northeast and Midwest, and its regular PAC received just 1% of its money from donors in North Carolina, an analysis of federal campaign finance data shows, with its biggest supporters all living in California, Florida and New Jersey. So it’s unclear how exactly the group decided which candidate to back in North Carolina’s Senate race, let alone a US House primary centered around Smithfield. Kildea said a number of factors go into it, “but generally Club for Growth PAC will conduct interviews with all or most of the candidates, do a research deep dive into their background and record, poll the race, watch media to see how it is shaping up. Then, if we want to move forward, we’ll send a memo to our board which approves the endorsements.” The group’s picks in North Carolina tend to align with Trump’s endorsements, and the same pattern holds true in some other states as well. They’re on the same side as Trump in a GOP Senate primary in Nevada, for example, but were on the opposing side in a recent Ohio US Senate primary. When Trump came to Johnston County earlier this year to give a speech with Cawthorn, Hines and others, one of the speakers was David McIntosh, the president of the Club For Growth. US President George Washington is shown on the $1 bill. DANIEL ACKER BLOOMBERG NEWS Following the money The group has very few donors with North Carolina ties. Its main PAC has raised $1.3 million for the 2022 elections, and only about 1% of that came from North Carolinians. Donors from the Tar Heel State have given the group about $15,000, most it from a single retiree in Chapel Hill. The records further show that even among the money that donors asked to specifically earmark to be given to certain North Carolina candidates endorsed by the group, most of that money still didn’t come from North Carolinians. ▪ Of the roughly $107,000 earmarked for Budd, $605 came from local donors. ▪ Of the roughly $18,000 earmarked for Hines, $10 came from local donors, only $5 of which was for the seat he’s currently seeking. ▪ Of the roughly $12,000 earmarked for Charlotte Rep. Dan Bishop, $30 came from local donors. Unlike Budd and Hines, Bishop is not expected to face a competitive primary. Like the regular PAC, the group’s Super PAC is also dominated by out-of-state money, and specifically a small handful of millionaires and billionaires who have given millions of dollars at a time. The group’s two biggest donors are Richard Uihline, whose family founded Schlitz Beer and who is the CEO of a Wisconsin shipping company called Uline, and Jeffrey Yass, a Wall Street trader from Pennsylvania. They gave Club For Growth a combined $58 million during the 2018 and 2020 elections, British newspaper The Guardian reported, and around $20 million more this year. Their support in recent years, The Guardian reported in 2021, coincided with the Club For Growth’s shift from a group mostly concerned with tax policy “to one that backs some of the most radical and anti-democratic Republican lawmakers in Congress.” When visitors to The Club For Growth’s website click on the “What We Do” tab, the first thing that shows up now is a video promoting far-right Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert, an avid backer of the QAnon conspiracy theory. Yass has also given $5 million to a different PAC that’s involved in the North Carolina Senate race on Budd’s behalf, called the School Freedom Fund. OpenSecrets, a media site that tracks political spending, reported that the School Freedom Fund spent over $1 million on an ad that accuses McCrory of putting liberal activists on a statewide textbook committee that then mandated school lessons about “critical race theory.” The ad is largely untruthful, PolitiFact NC reported: That committee couldn’t actually mandate anything, there was no CRT involved in what the did recommend, and McCrory had little power over who was on the board. But even though the ad was misleading, it continued spreading, PolitiFact reported. The Club For Growth aired a similar ad, featuring Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson repeating some of the false claims. Other outside spending While the Club For Growth may be among the biggest players in North Carolina’s primaries in terms of both money and national influence, it’s far from the only group trying to sway primaries this spring and help determine who makes it to the general election in November. On the Democratic side, for instance, a Super PAC associated with the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC is backing Democrats who are facing more progressive challengers. They have spent millions of dollars on ads supporting Davis over Smith in the District 1 primary, plus Valerie Foushee, whose main opponents are Nida Allam and Clay Aiken in the Durham-centric District 4. In the NC-04 race covering Durham and Chapel Hill another Super PAC, largely funded by a 30-year-old cryptocurrency billionaire, has also spent another $1 million backing Foushee. The News & Observer reported last week that those two groups have spent more money on pro-Foushee ads than all eight candidates in the race have reported raising from their supporters, combined. And it’s not just congressional races where outside money is pouring in, either. The Democratic primary for Wake County District Attorney has attracted the attention of several progressive and civil rights groups, including the ACLU, as longtime DA Lorrin Freeman faces a challenge from a pro-reform defense attorney, Damon Chetson. Some groups are active on both sides of the aisle, like the NC Chamber of Commerce. While the Chamber is typically associated with conservative politics and has gotten involved in some GOP primaries this year, campaign finance reports show its main focus so far has been on three Democratic primaries for the N.C. General Assembly. It has reported spending over $100,000 on behalf of: Patrick Buffkin, a Raleigh city councilman who’s running for an empty state Senate seat in North Raleigh; former state lawmaker Tricia Cotham, who’s seeking a comeback in an empty seat in southeastern Mecklenburg County; and Sen. Kirk deViere, a moderate from Fayetteville who’s facing a more progressive challenger endorsed by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. The NC Property Rights Fund, a political arm of the influential NC Association of Realtors lobbying group, is also active in both Democratic and Republican primaries, records show. It has spent nearly $1 million backing candidates in races ranging from the Charlotte and Fayetteville City Councils to state legislative primaries for both Republicans and Democrats. Its biggest target for support so far has been Buffkin.
Will Doran reports on North Carolina politics, particularly the state legislature. In 2016 he started PolitiFact NC, and before that he reported on local issues in several cities and towns. Contact him at [email protected] or (919) 836-2858.
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