RALEIGH — At first glance, news that another right-wing group was airing $10,000 worth of anti-Obama television ads in South Carolina next week didn't seem all that unusual. Groups opposing health care reform are popping up all over the place, many of them funded by the insurance industry or other wealthy interests trying to derail President Barack Obama's reform proposals.
These ads aren't just about health care. They accuse Obama of freeing terrorists, hiring communists and dignifying dictators, all as part of his socialist agenda. It's the kind of rhetoric heard this summer at town hall meetings and anti-government rallies.
The voices were strident, extreme and often accompanied by signs painted with crude racial caricatures or portrayals of Obama as Hitler. Some Republican elected officials stood with the rabid protesters, but many struggled to figure out how to benefit politically from the angry right without being too closely associated with its offensive images and messages.
Some party leaders bristled when asked about the worst of the rhetoric, blaming it on overzealous outsiders angry with the administration.
That's what is notable about the Wake Up America ads. The extremist rhetoric is there, but this time it is coming directly from Republican officeholders, not from a hard-to-connect front group or outsiders with no connection to the party establishment.
Wake Up America was created as a 527 advocacy organization. The papers filed with the IRS to establish the group list North Carolina Republican State Sen. Andrew Brock as the president and director. Its business address is Brock's home in Mocksville.
The initial filing isn't required to list the group's contributions or its expenses, so it is unclear if Brock is receiving financial compensation for serving as president. He lists his occupation as political consultant, though on his Statement of Economic Interest filed for the 2007-2008 General Assembly session, he listed only his legislative salary and his wife's pension as sources of income of more than $5,000.
Republican House member Bryan Holloway is another of the group's founders, along with businessman Will Head.
The Wake Up America Web site calls "Barack Hussein Obama" the "face of socialism" and that he is intent on destroying the Constitution. Brock says Obama is a "radical left-wing socialist with a hidden agenda that could destroy the America we know..."
Those aren't soundbites on Fox News from an anti-government tea party in Idaho. That's an elected state senator and the group he runs. In some ways, the extremist rhetoric from an officeholder in North Carolina is the next logical and troubling step.
During the presidential election last fall, two Republican members of the General Assembly, Rep. Jeff Barnhart and Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, were listed as two of the three board members of another 527, RightChange.com that ran commercials against Obama.
The other board member and primary funder of the group was Fred Eshelman, the CEO of Pharmaceutical Product Development, Inc. in Wilmington. Eshelman gave RightChange close to $3 million.
Hartsell and Barnhart are considered moderate Republicans, but their close association with the right-wing attack group didn't seem to cause much of a stir in the General Assembly this summer, though the activities of RightChange and the lawmakers' connections to it received surprisingly little press coverage from the North Carolina media last year.
Now Brock and Holloway have taken the next step, not just associating with a group that is attacking the president with overheated rhetoric, but leading it.
The rapid deterioration of the political discourse continues and is now merging with the policy debates in our legislative halls. The folks spewing the extreme rhetoric are not just the outsiders anymore. They are on the inside too.
Chris Fitzsimon is director of N.C. Policy Watch. This piece appeared in the group's electronic newsletter.