Tillis-Hagan showdown could be nation’s most expensive Senate race ever

“One hundred percent of the time Speaker Tillis’ policies have hurt North Carolina,” Sen. Kay Hagan said at the UNC-TV studios. “I assume you’re proud you voted with (President Barack Obama) 96 percent of the time,” N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis said.
“One hundred percent of the time Speaker Tillis’ policies have hurt North Carolina,” Sen. Kay Hagan said at the UNC-TV studios. “I assume you’re proud you voted with (President Barack Obama) 96 percent of the time,” N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis said. POOL/AP

From the Koch brothers and Art Pope to George Soros and Michael Bloomberg, wealthy donors are making North Carolina’s U.S. Senate race one of America’s first $100 million contests.

Outside groups continue to flood the state with ads and accusations, forcing Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan and Republican Thom Tillis to keep scrambling for dollars in the campaign’s final two weeks.

Money spent or committed in the race is poised to top $103 million, according to public records and interviews with donors. Three-quarters of it comes from party and interest groups. More than $22 million is “dark money” from groups that don’t disclose their donors.

“It’s a stunning number, and it tells you two things,” says Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist. “That campaign finance is completely out of anybody’s control and North Carolina is a premier swing state.”

The flood of money paid for nearly 80,000 TV ads through Oct. 13, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of CMAG/Kantar Media tracking data. At one point this month, that translated to three Senate ads every five minutes.

And more are coming. On Friday, a conservative group announced a new $1 million TV campaign against Hagan, who responded with her own new ad.

The figures may understate actual spending.

Campaigns and their allies are also spending online and on the ground as they try to mobilize voters in a race that could help determine control of the Senate.

Campaign spending has exploded since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling, which opened the door to more money from corporations and labor unions. Critics say that gives wealthy donors a disproportionate voice.

“The most affluent donors are calling the shots,” says Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics. “They’re picking races to target that offer an opportunity to flip the Senate and therefore shift the balance of power in Washington. ...

“Unfortunately what that means for voters is they’re feeling even less relevant than they otherwise would.”

Outside muscle

Spending continues to rise as polls show the race tightening. As an incumbent, Hagan has long enjoyed a significant fundraising advantage. Reports filed last week with the Federal Election Commission show she raised $21.6 million through September to Tillis’ $8.2 million.

As a result, Tillis’ campaign has spent just $6 million. But outside groups have supplemented that.

Together they’re spending $42.8 million on his behalf, according to an Observer analysis. Almost half of that is so-called dark money from political nonprofits such as Carolina Rising, a Raleigh-based group launched in April.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee is spending more than $10 million for Tillis. An additional $10.5 million has come from groups funded by Charles and David Koch, conservative industrialists from Wichita, Kan. Nearly $6 million has come from two groups tied to former White House adviser Karl Rove.

Hagan’s campaign has spent $19.6 million, more than half in the past quarter. Outside groups have pumped in nearly $35 million.

Her biggest supporter – and the biggest player in the race – is the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. It’s putting up at least $17 million.

Only a portion of her outside money – $2.3 million – has come from dark money groups. But a lot has come from groups funded by some of the nation’s wealthiest donors.

The Senate Majority PAC, for example, has spent more than $10 million on TV ads for Hagan. Tied to Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada – whose leadership job is on the line if Democrats lose the Senate – it appears to have spent almost a third of all its resources in North Carolina.

Donors to the Democratic super PAC include Chicago media executive Fred Eychaner and San Francisco billionaire and environmental activist Thomas Steyer. They’ve each given the PAC $5 million. Steyer’s own super PAC, NextGen Climate Action, contributed to the League of Conservation Voters, which also helped Hagan.

Hagan’s allies include at least three dark money groups and donors, according to published reports. Donors to Patriot Majority USA, for instance, include a group called America Votes. According to the Center for Public Integrity, donors to that group include billionaire investor George Soros.

Those wouldn’t be the only groups fueled by wealthy donors. Bloomberg, the former New York mayor, gave $2 million to Women Vote!, a group backing Hagan. And Raleigh businessman Art Pope gave $400,000 to Freedom Partners Action Fund, a super PAC backed by the Kochs.

“This is going to be a new record year for outside spending,” says Ian Vandwalker, a lawyer with the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU law school.

“North Carolina is from what we’ve seen the biggest target. It’s probably going to be the biggest Senate race ever in terms of outside spending.”

Pricier than Helms-Hunt

It’s certain to be one of the most expensive Senate races ever. Massachusetts’ 2012 race between Democrat Elizabeth Warren and Republican Scott Brown cost at least $76 million.

It is certain to be North Carolina’s costliest race. For a long time, the 1984 contest between Republican Sen. Jesse Helms and Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt was the state’s most expensive. It cost $26 million at the time. That’s $60 million in today’s dollars.

For weeks Hagan blasted Tillis, the state House speaker, with TV ads criticizing his record on education. Last month, outside money helped Tillis balance the airwaves, according to an analysis by the Center for Public Integrity.

After trailing her and her allies for month, team Tillis ran more ads the final two weeks of September. In the first week of October Hagan and her backers were on top again with 4,579 ads to 3,328 for Tillis.

Marc Rotterman, a Republican media strategist, says recent ads about a controversial business deal involving Hagan’s husband could have influenced some voters. But generally he says most people have made up their minds.

“At the end of the day it’s still going to come down to turnout,” he says. “It’s find ’em, vote ’em, count ’em.”

Who’s spending in North Carolina?

No race in the nation has seen as much outside spending as North Carolina – or generated as many TV ads.

Here are the major groups that have poured money into both sides, who they are, and how many ads they’ve run through Oct. 13, according to the Center for Public Integrity and Kantar Media/CMAG.


Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee

Spent: $17 million

Discloses donors: Yes

Ads: 6,931

What it is: The Senate campaign arm of the Democratic Party.

Notable donors: John and Virginia Sall, Cary, SAS, $64,800; James Farrin, Hillsborough lawyer, $32,400; Robert Page, Greensboro, Replacements, $32,400; Bertram Scott, Charlotte, Affinity Health Plan, $32,400; Eastern Band of the Cherokees, $62,400; Jim Rogers, Charlotte, former Duke Energy CEO, $22,400;

Senate Majority PAC

Spent: $10.1 million

Discloses donors: Yes

Ads: 12,400

What it is: Formed in 2011 after the GOP House takeover. Allied with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Patriot Majority USA, a 501(c)(4).

Notable Donors: Peter Angelos, owner, Baltimore Orioles, $300,000; Fred Eychaner, Chicago businessman, $5 million; Thomas Steyer, San Francisco environmental activist, $5 million; American Federation of Teachers, Washington, $1 million; Mitchell Gold, Conover furniture executive, $2,500; Eli Broad, founder Broad Foundation, $250,000.

Patriot Majority USA

Spent: $1.67 million

Discloses donors: No

Ads: 3,389

What it is: A Democratic-aligned 501(c) organization.

Notable donors: According to the Center for Responsive Politics, donors include the Alliance for Quality Nursing Home Care, $1.25 million since 2011; Partnership for Quality Home Health Care, $500,000 since 2011; America Votes, $285,000 since 2012. America Votes is a liberal nonprofit that aimed to raise a reported $8.5 million in 2014. According to the Center for Public Integrity, up to half of that was expected to come from wealthy donors such as billionaire investor George Soros.

NEA Advocacy Fund

Spent: $2.9 million

Discloses donors: Yes

Ads: 3,009

What it is: Super PAC tied to the National Education Association.

Notable donors: National Education Association, $7.1 million.

Women Vote!

Spent: $1.7 million

Discloses donors: Yes

Ads: 1,548

What it is: Affiliated with EMILY’s List, supports Democratic women who back abortion rights.

Notable donors: Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, $2 million; EMILY’s List, $300,000;

League of Conservation Voters

Spent: $1.45 million

Discloses donors: Yes

Ads: 950

What it is: Pro-environment.

Notable donors: Crandall Bowles, Charlotte, Chair the Springs Co., $5,000; Larry and Wendy Rockefeller, New York, attorney, $4,000; Frank Holleman, Greenville, S.C., attorney, Southern Environmental Law Center, $250; George Soros, New York investor, $500,000; singer Deborah Harry, New York, $400; Senate Majority PAC, $350,000; Nextgen Climate Action Committee, Washington, $150,000 (funded in part with $26.6 million from California billionaire Tom Steyer).

Planned Parenthood Votes

Spent: $928,500

Discloses donors: Yes

Ads: 318

What it is: A political arm of Planned Parenthood and part of a broader grass-roots effort called Women are Watching to mobilize women voters in key states. Supplemented by $63,000 spent on online and mail advertising by Planned Parenthood Action Fund.

Notable donors: Elaine Marshall, Raleigh, N.C. secretary of state, $500; Jennifer Roberts, Charlotte, $250; Andrea Soros Colombel, New York, daughter of George Soros, $250,000; Amber Mostyn, Houston lawyer, $500,000; Anna Quindlen, New York, writer, $5,000.

Southern Alliance for Clean Energy

Spent: $370,000

Discloses donors: No

Ads: 1,454

What it is: Knoxville-based environmental group favors clean energy, opposes expansion of coal-fired power plants.

Notable donors: Unavailable.

Working America

Spent: $187,480

Discloses donors: No

What it is: Affiliated with the AFL-CIO, works on grassroots organizing.

Notable donors: Unavailable. But funded by AFL-CIO and its members.


National Republican Senatorial Committee

Spent: $10.4 million

Discloses donors: Yes

Ads: 4,067 (another 1,582 in conjunction with Tillis campaign).

What it is: Campaign arm of Republican Party.

Notable donors: Jim Rogers, former CEO Duke Energy, $32,400; Allen Gant, textile executive, Burlington, $46,400; Eastern Band of the Cherokees, $32,400; Thomas Finke, Charlotte, investments, $30,000; Felix Sabates, Charlotte car dealer, $17,500;

Americans for Prosperity

Spent: $8.75 million

Discloses donors: No

Ads: 5,885

What it is: Political nonprofit founded with support of David and Charles Koch. The spending figure is for TV ads; it does not include $283,000 spent on a Web ad last week.

Notable donors: According to the Center for Responsive Politics, donors include: John William Pope Foundation, Raleigh, $1.47 million; Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, Arlington, Va., $33.76 million; Center to Protect Patients Rights, Phoenix, $15.67 million. The last two organizations are supported by the Koch brothers.

Carolina Rising

Spent: $4.7 million

Discloses donors: No.

Ads: 3,992

What it is: Organized in April by Dallas Woodhouse, former head of the state chapter of Americans for Prosperity. Has run three positive ads on Tillis.

Notable donors: Claim that it doesn’t have to disclose donors has been challenged by the state Democratic Party, which argues that because the group was created solely to run political ads, donors should have to be identified.

U.S. Chamber of Commerce

Spent: $3.8 million

Discloses donors: No.

Ads: 2,315

What it is: Pro-business group.

Notable donors: According to a cross-check of tax filings by the Center for Responsive Politics, donors include the following: Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, a Virginia-based group with ties to the Koch brothers, $3 million; AGC Public Awareness fund, $125,000; Motion Picture Association of America, $75,000.

National Rifle Association

Spent: $3.28 million

Discloses donors: Yes

Ads: 807

What it is: The nation’s largest gun rights group. A sister group, the NRA Institute for Legislative Action, has spent $947,000 on the Senate race. As a non-profit, it does not disclose donors.

Notable donors: Frank Dowd IV, chairman, Charlotte Pipe, $250; Patrick Walker, Charlotte, $500; T.P. Zimmermann, Huntersville, $250.

Crossroads GPS

Spent: $3.95 million

Discloses donors: No

Ads: 6,003

What it is: Crossroads Grassroots Political Strategies is a sister organization to American Crossroads.

Notable donors: Last year Pro Publica reported that 2012 tax forms showed Crossroads GPS got one donation of $22.5 million, another of $18 million and 50 for $1 million or more. The Center for Responsive Politics reports the group got $500,000 from the Alliance for Quality Nursing Home Care in 2013 and $100,000 from the AGC Public Awareness & Advocacy Fund.

American Crossroads

Spent: $2 million

Discloses donors: Yes

Ads: 1,659

What it is: Super PAC affiliated with former White House adviser Karl Rove and a sister, non-profit group, Crossroads GPS.

Notable donors: Jerrold Perenchio, Los Angeles, former CEO Univision, $2 million; Paul Singer, New York investments, $1.35 million; James Goodnight, Cary, SAS Institute, $100,000; Peter Coors, Golden Co., chairman MillerCoors, $100,000; Sam Zell, Chicago, former Tribune owner, $100,000;

Freedom Partners Action Fund

Spent: $1.8 million

Discloses donors: Yes

Ads: 557

What it is: A conservative group funded by the Koch brothers.

Notable donors: Variety Wholesalers, owned by Raleigh’s Art Pope, $400,000; David Koch Trust, Wichita, $2 million; Charles Koch Trust, Wichita, $2 million; Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, $301,000.

Women Speak Out

Spent: $895,000

Discloses donors: Yes

Ads: 185

What it is: An anti-abortion group partnered with the Susan B. Anthony List.

Notable donors: Robin Hayes, Concord, former congressman $5,000; Robert Mercer, East Setauket, N.Y., Renaissance Technologies, $500,000; John Coors, Evergreen, Colo., chairman Coors Tek, $25,000.

John Bolton Super PAC

Spent: $748,275

Discloses donors: Yes

What it is: Super PAC focused on national security launched by the former U.N. ambassador. It finances online ads in North Carolina.

Notable donors: Louis DeJoy, Greensboro businessman and husband of state Health and Human Services Secretary Aldona Wos, $5,000; Paul Singer, New York hedge fund manager, $25,000; Trammell Crow, Dallas investor, $45,000; Renaissance Technologies, New York hedge fund, $1 million; August Anheuser Busch III, retired beer executive, $50,000.

Sources: Federal Election Commission; Center for Responsive Politics; Center for Public Integrity’s analysis of tracking data by CMAG/Kantar Media (which covers broadcast TV and national cable, though not local cable); Individual groups.

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