An unprecedented wave of money from conservative groups with anonymous donors has swept into four North Carolina congressional races and helped lift Republican challengers into competitive positions against incumbents who were better known and in most cases better funded.
These groups, which bear generic-sounding names such as Americans for Job Security and the 60 Plus Association, have spent or committed to spend more than $3.3 million on advertising - nearly all of it for attack ads - in the four races widely regarded as the most competitive, those in the 2nd, 7th, 8th and 11th congressional districts. They have spent almost nothing in other House races.
That's more than the four Republican candidates have raised and more than the two parties spent on those elections.
It's also more than the $500,000 spent by all non-party independent groups on federal races in North Carolina during the 2006 mid-term election, according to the website opensecrets.org, which tracks campaign finance filings with the Federal Election Commission.
The jump in spending was made possible in January when the U.S. Supreme Court lifted restrictions on corporate and union political contributions to independent groups in a decision known as Citizens United. A possible shift in party control of the House of Representatives is fueling donors' interest, with more than 100 seats across the nation thought to be in play.
"The big difference in this election is the Citizens United decision, and the amounts that can be spent by these independent groups that were restricted on their spending, on taking corporation contributions and things like that," said Duke political science professor David Rohde. Democrats still have the edge in all forms of spending on the races, $7.32 million to $6.88 million for Republicans. But the new fundraising muscle that's being flexed by the independent groups has at least helped to even the odds for the challengers, which is a positive change, said Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University.
"We still see that traditional campaign finance - that is, contributing to candidates directly, then letting them spend it - is an incumbent's game," Taylor said. "Incumbents dominate that because of the power they have in Washington, because they have significant electoral advantages. They get re-elected generally at very high numbers and political action committees want to give to them and aren't very interested in giving to challengers."
In the 2nd District, which includes parts of the Triangle, Rep. Bob Etheridge, a seven-term incumbent, has outraised challenger Renee Ellmers $1.23 million to $553,267, according to FEC records.
About 60 percent of Etheridge's money comes from political action committees, which tend to give to incumbents. Those supporting him include the PACs of major companies and groups such as trade associations and labor unions, among them 3M, the AFL-CIO, the American Bankers Association, the Airline Pilots Association and Microsoft.
Outside groups, though, stepped up to aid Ellmers, spending nearly $400,000. Most of it, $359,000, has come from Americans for Job Security, which has announced that it plans to spend a total of $800,000 against Etheridge. Etheridge has received no such help.
Ellmers, a registered nurse and doctor's office manager, was a political neophyte when the campaign began and had no name recognition. This week, though, a poll sponsored by the conservative Civitas Institute in Raleigh indicated that she had taken the lead in the race, 46 percent to 41 percent. The poll had a margin of error of 5 percentage points.
Liberals give, too
Conservative groups aren't the only ones weighing in. Independent liberal groups not affiliated with the Democratic Party have spent just over $1 million in the four Congressional races.
Party congressional committees also have spent heavily to help candidates from both sides, and Democrats have a big lead in that type of funding, too: about $2.21 million in the four races versus $390,000 for Republicans.
Most of that went to District 8 to help embattled incumbent Democrat Larry Kissell, who is trying to hold off Republican Harold Johnson in what is regarded as the state's fiercest congressional race.
Kissell's campaign has raised $979,000 and Johnson slightly more, including Johnson's $615,000 loan to his own campaign, but the spending has soared well beyond what the candidates pulled in.
Outside groups have poured in more than $1 million to help Johnson, including $590,000 from Americans for Job Security and $498,000 from another conservative group called the Center for Individual Freedom.
Meanwhile other groups have spent nearly $2.4 million to help Kissell, including $1.7 million from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and $674,000 from the National Education Association, a labor union for teachers.
Open versus anonymous
There are significant differences between party committees and independent groups such as Americans for Job Security. The party committees, like candidates, must reveal the names of donors, and there are limits on contributions.
National news organizations have reported that several of the anonymously backed groups have close ties and are functioning as coordinated networks. They are widely vilified by liberals, who say that among other things they open a door for big corporations to spend whatever it takes to essentially buy off the government.
Liberals say that the anonymously funded groups have important differences from groups such as unions and political action committees. The sources of the union money and PAC money are clear, and so are the interests those groups have. Conservatives, though, say it's a matter of free speech for individuals, companies or other groups to be able to spend as they wish to air their views.
Ellmers, the Republican challenger in the 2nd District, was a volunteer with once such group, Americans for Prosperity. The group was started by oil billionaire David Koch and a member of the board of directors of his company. Raleigh businessman Art Pope, a major financial backer of conservative causes, is a director of that group.
The watchdog group Sourcewatch.org calls it an "Astroturf" - or fake grass-roots - organization that works with conservative think tanks "to disrupt Barack Obama's presidency."
Taylor said the attraction of anonymity for donors isn't always about hiding what the donor is doing, but is a way for massive donors such as Koch to make their contributions seem more legitimate, rather than just a product of what one wealthy person thinks.
Ellmers said there's nothing sinister or improper about such organizations.
"They're groups just like any other group," she said. "They have that position, and stick to it, and are able to raise money from individuals that support those positions, and I think they're great.
"If you contribute to an organization, you shouldn't have to be forced to disclose your name," she added. "It's almost an invasion of privacy."
Liberals, she said, have funded similar groups, such as MoveOn.org, in past elections, and are desperately trying to create any controversy they can to slow likely Republican gains.
"I find it interesting that the Democrats are bringing this to the forefront this election, when two years ago weweren't sure where a lot of the money was coming from for Barack Obama's campaign, we weren't supposed to question," she said. "What goes around comes around."
Conservatives aid Miller
Not surprisingly, the campaigns that are the targets of the anonymously funded groups disagree.
"Renee Ellmers just does not understand that people in the Second District are smarter than to fall for these sleazy, anonymous attacks," Etheridge spokesman Mike Davis said in a statement. "She can keep hiding behind these corporate shadow groups and continue asking them to salvage her desperate bid for office."
In the 11th District, incumbent Heath Shuler easily outraised challenger Jeff Miller, $1.17 million to $663,000, and benefitted from $231,000 in spending by his party's congressional committee and a similar amount from the League of Conservation Voters.
Miller, though, has gotten a boost from at least five conservative independent groups funded anonymously, including $750,000 in spending by Americans for Job Security and most recently $252,000 by American Crossroads, a group started by Republican strategist Karl Rove, a top adviser to President George W. Bush.
Shuler's campaign manager Hayden Rogers derided those groups' involvement, particularly Rove's.
"Karl Rove is credited as the architect of an administration that put us trillions of dollars in debt, sent our economy into a tailspin and left millions of Americans out of work," Rogers wrote. "Now he's trying to resurrect himself by buying his way back into power through the use of these made-up, shadow organizations, funded by the good Lord only knows who. ... The people of Western North Carolina cannot be bought."
For now the vast majority of anonymous donations is by conservative groups. Taylor, the political scientist, said, though, that he doesn't think that will remain the case.
"A lot of the reason we are seeing a lot of it being Republican money or conservative money, is because it's a Republican year, and those guys are energized and want to give," he said. "The Democrats are demoralized, rather like the Republicans were in 2006 and 2008, but if we still have these rules around in 2012 or 2014 and it's a Democratic year, you'll see a lot of Democratic groups doing the same thing."
"In many ways," Taylor said, "the money does get blown by the political winds rather than driving peoples' choices. It's as much a reflection of what's going on as a shaper of it."
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