To rally supporters in her bid for lieutenant governor, Democrat Linda Coleman recently asked her Facebook fans to post pictures featuring her campaign materials. And many did, posing with green yard signs shouting her name in all capital letters.
She thanked the fans in the photos – but really, she needed to thank the State Employees Association. They bought the signs. And much, much more.
The association, its political action committee and an affiliated union organization all together have spent more than $300,000 to boost Coleman’s campaign – nearly 10 times what Coleman’s campaign spent on its own.
The spending is raising questions about the direction of campaign politics in North Carolina and drawing criticism from her opponent.
The use of high-dollar super PACs, such as those used by Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum and local GOP congressional candidate George Holding, to run a shadow campaign is familiar at the national level. But the notion that an outside political group can essentially become the candidate’s campaign, running TV advertising, buying yard signs, conducting polling and sending mailers, would represent a new paradigm in state politics.
Coleman’s campaign downplays its relevance. “It may be unprecedented historically, but ... you are going to see more and more campaigns like this,” Democratic consultant Brad Crone said.
Her rival for the Democratic primary, state Sen. Eric Mansfield, is making it a campaign issue. In an email to supporters last week, Mansfield said Coleman “outsourced” her campaign to a special interest group.
“My biggest concern is whether this is the way we are going with politics,” added Mansfield’s campaign consultant Thomas Mills. “Are we going to a point where interest groups matter more than a candidate?”
What the groups paid for
The State Employees Association, known as SEANC, spent $13,000 in February to air a radio ad supporting Coleman in Mansfield’s Fayetteville legislative district. At the time, the group’s executive director, Dana Cope, boasted that he would spend as much as it took to elect Coleman, whom the group considers “a hero” to state workers. Coleman, who recently stepped down as the state’s personnel director, earned the association’s admiration as a state lawmaker who pushed for a larger pay raise for government employees.
In recent weeks, the association and the Service Employees International Union coordinated to spend about $280,000 on TV ads touting Coleman. The association also bought $14,000 worth of yard signs and paid $25,000 for a poll that it released publicly.
By contrast, Coleman’s campaign raised about $35,000 and spent about $38,000. Much of it went to consultants and a negative mail piece against Mansfield. But her campaign used an all-volunteer staff, spent little on fundraising and didn’t incur many of the typical election expenses.
State law forbids the association and campaign from coordinating efforts, and both entities maintain they erected a firewall to prevent it.
Mansfield’s campaign didn’t have an outside group’s help. It raised $230,000, including a substantial $70,000 loan from the candidate, but still found itself dwarfed by the association. The campaign also spent money to air TV ads, send mailers, hire staff and pay fundraisers.
In an interview, Kevin LeCount, the association’s political director, blasted Mansfield for his moderate stances, such as a vote in favor of capping medical malpractice damages. And even though the group also fought against Mansfield’s state Senate bid in 2010, LeCount said it’s nothing personal.
“It’s disheartening for a politician like Eric Mansfield to say we are a special interest,” he said. “We built this PAC, and it’s our job to advocate for people who advocate for ... hardworking people who work for the state.”
Mansfield said he doesn’t oppose the state employees’ legislative agenda and even fought on their behalf against raising health care premiums for retired state workers. He said he’s received numerous messages of support from state employees.
“I don’t like one group spending so much money behind one candidate to push a certain agenda,” he said. “I still think we are a government of the people by people.”