A billboard pictured Congressman George Holding asleep at the front of the U.S. House chambers. Television ads criticize his votes on the national health insurance law. An airplane banner with the message “Cong Holding Hands Off Our Healthcare” flew over a Republican barbeque.
A group called North Carolinians for a Fair Economy is putting the spotlight on Holding, a Raleigh Republican running for his fourth term in the Second Congressional District. But the people or organizations paying for the ads are anonymous.. North Carolinians for a Fair Economy is a “social welfare” group that, under IRS rules, does not have to disclose its donors.
“We exist to educate voters in Congressman George Holding’s district that his votes are hurting them,” said Paula Wolf, North Carolinians for a Fair Economy spokeswoman.
Wolf said she does not know who is paying for the group’s campaign.
“I can’t tell you that because I don’t know,” she said.
Wolf said in an email that The Sixteen Thirty Fund, another social welfare group, is Fair Economy’s fiscal sponsor.
“They provided some of the infrastructure and logistics needed to get us up and running,” she wrote.
Eric Kessler, who runs several progressive advocacy groups from Washington, D.C., leads the Sixteen Thirty Fund. Kessler is listed as Fair Economy’s president.
North Carolinians For a Fair Economy was created in May to, in its own words, “inform residents about Congressman George Holding’s consistent record of voting against working families.”
It has a board of directors that includes MaryBe McMillan, president of the NC AFL-CIO; Carolyn Smith, the southern region campaign director of Working America; Nolo Martinez, a former director of Hispanic affairs for Gov. Jim Hunt; Lana Dial, a Native American leader and advocate; former U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge, a Democrat from Lillington; and Tara Romano, the executive director of NARAL NC.
In early July, North Carolinians for a Fair Economy announced a $250,000 advertising buy and a $31,075 radio buy for spots to run through the month.
Where the dark money goes
Fair Economy is a relative rarity in politics, a dark money group attacking from the left. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the biggest dark money groups active in the 2016 elections spent most of their money helping Republicans or opposing Democrats.
The Center for Responsive Politics reports that the NRA Institute for Legislative Action was the top dark money spender in 2016. Like North Carolinians for a Fair Economy, the NRA Institute is what’s called a 501(c)(4), named for a section of the tax code for tax-exempt social welfare groups.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the NRA Institute spent $21.1 million against Democrats, $12.2 million for Republicans, and $2,131 against Republicans in 2016. Of the top 10 dark money spenders in 2016, only two were liberal, according to the center.
Wolf said Fair Economy is not coordinating with the campaign of Linda Coleman, the Democrat challenging Holding. The Second District cups central Raleigh to the east and includes all or parts of Wake, Wilson, Franklin, Johnston, Nash and Harnett counties.
Dark money social welfare groups are not allowed to coordinate with campaigns under Federal Election Commission rules, said a commission spokesman.
“We’re not delving into electoral politics,” Wolf said. “What we’re trying to do is educate people about who represents them and who doesn’t. We’re ending our temporary existence well before the election so we will not cross the line at all.”
Coleman has not run any television ads.
“Right now, she’s just working on talking to the people of the district and being involved in the community,” said Coleman campaign spokeswoman Mimi Wilson.
In a recent fundraising appeal, Holding highlighted the “dark” money being used on ads against him.
“I need your support to fight off the massive amount of out-of-state “dark” money that is pouring in against me,” Holding wrote. “You’ve probably seen the flood of ads attacking me, and hopefully seen my campaign’s response as well.”
The Holding campaign said the group has spent about $500,000 in advertising of all kinds against Holding.
But are the donors from out of state?
“The truth is we don’t know where the money is coming from. I don’t think anybody really knows,” said Carter Wrenn, Holding’s campaign manager.
“If someone spends $500,000 attacking a congressman, I take this as a serious problem for George’s campaign. And if you’re spending $500,000 in July, you’re probably not going to stop,” Wrenn said.
Wrenn said Holding’s campaign upped its spending and produced its own ad to respond to an attack about Holding’s voting record for people with pre-existing conditions.
“We had to untie that knot, answer that attack,” Wrenn said.
Dark money was deployed in the Second Congressional District two years ago, but it’s target was Holding primary opponent, Republican Renee Ellmers.
Americans for Prosperity, one of the biggest social welfare groups, for the first time targeted a Republican for a primary defeat when it went after Ellmers, according to Politico. The Center for Responsive Politics reported that Americans for Prosperity spent about $205,000 criticizing Ellmers that year.
Other outside groups worked against Ellmers, too. She was the incumbent in the district, but after a court-ordered redistricting, Holding, who had represented a different district, decided to run against her. Greg Brannon, a Cary obstetrician, was the third primary candidate.
Club for Growth Action, a super PAC, spent nearly $790,000 opposing Ellmers, the center reported. Susan B. Anthony List, another super PAC, also worked against her.
Super PACs can work for or against candidates. Donations to super PACs are not capped, and individuals and corporations can give. Super PACs must identify their donors, but they cannot coordinate with campaigns or give them money.
Holding won the 2016 primary with more than 53 percent of the vote. Ellmers and Brannon each won about 23 percent.
Holding won his 2016 general election with more than 56 percent of the vote.