Tens of millions of dollars are flowing into North Carolina to influence the Kay Hagan-Thom Tillis U.S. Senate race, and there’s no way to know where the vast majority of it is coming from.
This is happening all over the country, but North Carolina, being the leader that it is, is showing the way. A handful of races in November will decide which party controls the U.S. Senate. The Hagan-Tillis race might be the tightest – and most attractive to outside interests.
The pro-transparency Brennan Center for Justice last week revealed the scope of what’s happening. The center’s Ian Vandewalker and Eric Petry detailed the outside spending in the nation’s nine most-competitive Senate races. North Carolina, they found, is attracting the most money, both reported and unreported.
Groups other than the candidates themselves have reported spending about $14 million for and against the Democrat Hagan and the Republican Tillis so far. An additional $14 million or so has been spent in North Carolina on so-called issue ads. These are ads that clearly target one candidate or the other but don’t explicitly call for a vote against them. That allows their sponsors, under Federal Election Commission rules, to keep secret their spending and their donors.
That, as some of you have calculated by now, is $28 million of murky out-of-state money influencing our U.S. Senate race. And remember: It’s only August.
Most troubling is that about three-quarters of that $28 million comes from who-knows-where. The donors of about half of the $14 million from outside groups are not disclosed. And none of the donors of the $14 million for issue ads is disclosed. So only about $7 million – just a quarter of the noncandidate spending – can be traced.
The money benefits candidates of both parties. The Brennan Center researchers found that by far the biggest spender across the nine states was the Senate Majority PAC, which spent $21 million supporting Democrats. Far behind was the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which spent $6.7 million supporting Republicans. Almost all the “issue-ad” money, which is sometimes announced but never reported to the FEC, has benefited Tillis.
The trend is growing every year. Before 2008, almost all campaign donors were disclosed. This year, 15 times more so-called “dark money” had been spent on federal races than in the 2010 midterms, the Brennan Center reported.
The battle over putting caps on campaign spending is pretty much lost. The U.S. Supreme Court has steadily made that clear with landmark rulings such as Citizens United and McCutcheon.
That makes disclosure that much more important, and all that’s needed to have disclosure is the political will to require it. Who, other than the special interests and their beneficiaries who would be revealed, opposes being open about who is spending money to influence campaigns?
North Carolina, sadly, has gone the opposite direction. Candidates no longer have to “stand by your ad” by saying they “approved this message.” And independent spenders no longer have to list their top five donors in print ads.
So in coming weeks, brace for a barrage of ads about Kay Hagan and Thom Tillis. Just don’t expect to know who’s behind them.
Taylor Batten is editorial page editor of the Charlotte Observer.