Ruling likely to transform N.C. elections

Friends and foes of high court ruling foresee big changes in political landscape

Staff WriterJanuary 22, 2010 

— A U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down limits on corporate and union spending to influence campaigns could dramatically alter the landscape of elections in North Carolina, political observers and lawmakers said Thursday.

The decision is expected to open direct corporate spending on television ads in the race between Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Burr and his eventual Democratic challenger, and could greatly influence state and local races.

Gary Bartlett, executive director of the State Board of Elections, said the ruling is likely to result in even more out-of-state money being spent to influence local races.

"We're in a new era," Bartlett said. "You are going to see a lot more independent expenditures, not only at the congressional level or the state level, but probably even in these hotly contested, targeted legislative or county commission seats."

Advocates for stricter limits on corporate campaign spending decried the ruling Thursday, while business groups said the court's decision will clarify what companies can and can't do.

"When corporations are left unfettered to influence the political process, everyday citizens get left out," said Damon Circosta, executive director of the N.C. Center for Voter Education, a nonpartisan voter rights group. "If politics is about a level playing field where ideas compete to be heard, the Supreme Court just handed an amplifier to the very folks who already had a megaphone."

Gregg Thompson, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, said his group is "very delighted."

"We think it levels the playing field, and allows all parties that want to participate in the political process to do so in an open manner," Thompson said.

Some political consultants who will be running campaigns in this year's U.S. Senate race said the full impact will not be known until after the election.

"I think you will see a lot more money being spent directly from third parties," said Thomas Mills, a consultant for the campaign of N.C. Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, who is seeking the Democratic nomination to challenge Burr. "I think we're going to have to watch and see how it unfolds."

Figuring out new rules

Paul Shumaker, a Republican campaign consultant working for Burr, had a similar take.

"There's going to be a lot of political people sitting down and looking at this and trying to figure out what this means," he said.

Guy-Uriel Charles, a Duke University law professor and director of the Center on Law, Race and Politics, said the ruling would allow companies to spend unlimited amounts to back candidates who support their corporate interests and attack those who don't.

For example, Charles said, large corporations such as Progress Energy could spend millions on ads seeking to influence climate change legislation, while Bank of America could publically campaign against efforts to tighten restrictions on the financial industry.

By the same token, national unions such as the AFO-CIO could utilize members' dues to weigh in on North Carolina races.

State Sen. Phil Berger, an Eden Republican, said he supports the high court's move toward fewer spending restrictions while supporting more disclosure.

The ruling could result in greater transparency about precisely who is behind a television attack ad, he said.

"Limitations on contributions, prohibitions on contributions have had the unintended consequence of driving that money somewhere else," Berger said. "The candidates have lost control of their campaigns. That loss of control in campaigns has a least contributed to the decline in civility as far as campaigns are concerned."

Rep. David Price, a Democrat from Chapel Hill, called on congressional leaders to move swiftly to close what he characterized as a "gaping loophole" in campaign finance laws after the ruling.

"Today's Supreme Court ruling is a major setback for the integrity of our democracy," Price said in a written statement. "This decision will open the door for special interest groups and corporations to spend millions to influence the outcome of political campaigns. I have no doubt that it will have a corrosive effect on the electoral process."

Public financing?

Bob Hall, director of Democracy North Carolina, said open government advocacy groups such as his are now left with little choice but to peruse legislation for the full public financing of political campaigns.

But as the 2008 presidential election showed, candidates who accept public financing could find themselves at a severe financial disadvantage to those supported by private patrons.

"The court's decision encourages a pay-to-play system," Hall said. "It's a distressing, though predictable decision to turn public elections into private auctions."

Staff Writers Bill Krueger and Benjamin Niolet contributed to this report.

michael.biesecker@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4698

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