RALEIGH — Lost in the glare generated by the presidential and gubernatorial campaigns, third-party groups backed by money from corporations and liberal-leaning organizations are trying again this fall to influence the partisan makeup of the North Carolina Legislature.
Just like two years ago, a chief outside player in House and Senate campaigns is the pro-business Real Jobs NC, which is supporting Republican candidates and opposing Democrats with TV and radio commercials and mailers. An opposition group backed by historically Democratic interests is again throwing counterpunches.
So far, the fight doesn’t appear as intense as 2010, when partisan control of the General Assembly was front and center because there were no partisan statewide races on the ballots. That’s when Real Jobs spent more than $1.5 million, much of which was used to level accusations against Democrats on increasing taxes, in particular a penny increase in the sales tax in 2009.
Sixteen of the 22 Democrats that Real Jobs targeted lost in 2010 as Republicans took majorities simultaneously in the House and Senate for the first time in 140 years. GOP leaders credited Real Jobs for plowing the political soil for Republican candidates and widening the majorities.
Goals for each party
This time, Real Jobs NC has spent less than $700,000 on nine legislative districts before the final weeks of the fall campaign, according to reports filed with the State Board of Elections. Nearly half the money also has been spent on supporting Republican gubernatorial candidate Pat McCrory, according to the group.
“Real Jobs NC was successful in 2010 by any measure,” said group spokesman Roger Knight, a Raleigh attorney. Knight said he didn’t know if Real Jobs NC would reach 2010 spending this year.
On the other side, the independent expenditure group Common Sense Matters has also sent mailers to swing districts targeting first-term Republican senators and several House GOP members.
One mailer accuses first-term Sen. Jim Davis, a Republican from Macon, of giving $336 million in tax breaks to business owners by voting for the 2011 budget that also cut spending for the public schools.
“Because of Jim Davis, our kids are being herded into classrooms like cattle,” the mailer says. Davis faces a rematch with former Sen. John Snow, a Cherokee Democrat, whom Davis defeated in 2010.
While Democrats are still aiming to win back the 170-seat Legislature, current GOP majorities look more secure because Republican leaders controlled the once-a-decade redistricting of General Assembly boundaries. Goals for Republicans may be more incremental, such as winning four additional House seats for a veto-proof majority.
Michael Weisel, general counsel for Common Sense Matters, declined comment Friday about the group’s activities except to say it’s complying with all federal and state disclosure rules.
The group’s third-quarter filing with the IRS said it had received $130,000 during the period, with $100,000 coming from political action committee of the North Carolina Association of Educators and $20,000 from America Votes Built to Win, a national coalition of liberal-leaning organizations. The anti-Davis mailer also identified the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters and N.C. Advocates for Justice as additional donors.
The top donors to Real Jobs through early October included the Republican Governors Association, which has given $275,000, followed by the Republican State Leadership Committee at $200,000, according to state disclosures. Corporations and individuals give to both groups. RAI Services Co., a subsidiary of Winston-Salem-based cigarette maker Reynolds American Inc., also gave $100,000 to Real Jobs.
Variety Stores Inc., a company owned by the family of conservative activist Art Pope of Raleigh – who remains listed as a Real Jobs director – gave $100,000 in late 2011, an IRS filing said.
State Democratic Party spokesman Walton Robinson said legislators supported by Real Jobs NC “cannot put middle-class priorities first because they are beholden to the special interests that funded their campaigns.” Real Jobs NC and Common Sense Matters don’t give directly to campaigns and are barred from coordinating with candidates.
One of only a few repeat targets of Real Jobs from 2010 is former Rep. Cullie Tarleton, D-Watauga, who was then labeled the “Tax King” in a group commercial for voting for the 2009 budget that contained a tax increase. The new commercial attempts to place the “King of Spending” label upon Tarleton, too. He lost his seat to in 2010 to Republican Jonathan Jordan of Ashe County. The two are in a rematch this year.
“My district is a swing district,” Tarleton said Friday. “It can go either way.”