A dubious honor: North Carolina’s US Senate race may top $100 million

It’s not exactly something North Carolinians would brag about down at the corner grocery: “Our U.S. Senate race is going to cost more than maybe any other one in the country. Could be more than $100 million by the time both candidates stop raising money and outside contributors stop giving.”

In 1984, with Republican U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms running against a formidable challenger in Gov. Jim Hunt, the campaign got rough and expensive. The number, $26 million at the time and $60 million in today’s dollars, astonished many people and featured all sorts of negative television ads.

Democrats figured that the benefits of a Hunt victory would go beyond just ousting one of their main nemeses in the sharp-tongued, increasingly powerful Helms. Had Jim Hunt won that race, he likely would have been a strong contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988. So with much on the line, the money flowed.

Outside money

But compared with the river of money in the current race pitting incumbent Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan against Republican challenger Thom Tillis, the state House speaker, Hunt-Helms was a stream.

The Hagan-Tillis campaign may, by its end in a couple of weeks, top $100 million in spending, much of it outside money from big-dollar backers.

Hagan is getting support from people like former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and Tillis is drawing it from groups associated with Charles and David Koch, the billionaire brothers from Wichita, Kan. Karl Rove, infamous among Democrats as the architect of the Republican victories of George W. Bush, also is helping with big money for Tillis.

And a huge chunk, around $20 million, is expected to be spent by what’s called dark money groups, organizations that thanks to loosened campaign finance laws don’t have to disclose their donors.

Hagan has gotten a fraction of that in dark money directly, but more public groups such as the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee are kicking in big – the DSCC to the tune of $17 million.

Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 2010 Citizens United case that corporations and labor unions were essentially free to give whatever they liked to candidates (thus opening the door for wealthy special interest groups and individuals), the money has been flooding in like water after a storm.

And that’s particularly true in a race like the one featuring Hagan and Tillis. Many observers believe with good reason that this election could tip control of the U.S. Senate to Republicans, which would stymie any initiatives from President Barack Obama. Given the president’s veto power, however, it would not guarantee the Republican objective of dismantling health care reform, for example.

But it would further bring Congress to a flat halt.

Muffled voices

So why is the Hagan-Tillis race, in terms of the money being spent, more an embarrassment than a bragging right? Because it represents the ever-diminishing voice of the average American voter.

What chance do those voices have of being heard when no less than U.S. senators or those who aspire to be senators must spend most of their time asking wealthy groups and individuals to go into their pockets to finance the latest advertising campaign or to respond to the accusations the other side is making?

Campaigns turn into media blitzes, one after the other, with the Hagan-Tillis race resulting in so many campaign ads that it’s virtually impossible to tune into a television show without seeing one or two or three ads in a row.

For the voter, it’s so much so often that the message is often lost. The “assault ads” that bombard the viewer with dubious claims about the other candidate aren’t about informing voters at all but about appealing to the worst instincts of Republicans and Democrats, going for the emotional jugular.

Until Congress enacts some meaningful campaign finance reform, and until a Supreme Court takes shape that is inclined to support that reform, the Hagan-Tillis race is liable to be supplanted as the most expensive in North Carolina history, perhaps by the next election cycle. Nothing to brag about. At all.