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As McCrory campaigns as outsider, PAC funds lurk

Independent GOP group brings in donations of a size never before seen in N.C.

Jack Betts
Jack Betts
Jack Betts writes on politics and life in The Carolinas for the Charlotte Observer's Editorial page.

RALEIGH Pat McCrory has a whale of a good issue as he runs for governor this fall on the Republican ticket. He's campaigning against what he believes is a political culture in Raleigh that turns on backroom doors, corrupt practices, an indifference to the needs of the rest of the state and an affinity for special interests.

His message that state government needs a shakeup beginning with a Republican governor may be one reason he's in a tight race with Lt. Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat with strong ties to those who have dominated state government for years.

Despite a big gap in fundraising – McCrory's camp has raised about $2.2 million compared with Perdue's nearly $10 million – the race is close to a virtual dead heat. A recent Civitas Institute poll had Perdue with 43 percent and McCrory with 40 percent; Public Policy Polling, which does work for Democrats, had it even closer, at 42 percent for Perdue, 41 percent for McCrory.

But while McCrory had a terrific issue to press against Democrats in a state where the incumbent party has won all but three of the elections for governor since the dawn of the 20th century, he may lose the effectiveness of that issue.

Why? Because a new independent campaign effort on his behalf – one that he may know nothing about and by law can't even consult with during this campaign – is about to start funneling hundreds of thousands of unregulated dollars from big-time givers who no longer are subject to the normal contribution limits that apply to most donors in N.C. campaigns.

While those who give directly to the campaigns of Perdue, McCrory or any other state office candidate are limited to $4,000, contributors to a new political action committee created by the Republican Governor's Association to influence the N.C. race can give as much as they like. The News & Observer's Dan Kane reported last week that James Barksdale of Ridgeland, Miss., former CEO of Netscape, donated $100,000 to the independent PAC. Gary Heavin of Waco, Texas, gave $50,000; and so did Bruce Rauner of Winnetka, Ill.

These are not folks who usually contribute to local and statewide races here. They're folks the GOP governors' association invited to donate money to help boost Republicans in certain states – including, The Wall Street Journal recently reported, Republican presidential candidate John McCain. The association isn't limited in how much money contributors can give, and they've advised McCain donors who have maxed out on donations to his campaign that they can help elect him by helping Republican gubernatorial candidates win in some closely contested states. That will help the GOP narrow the gap in the funding race with Democrats, they believe. And Democrats, of course, could do the same thing.

Independent campaigns are nothing new in this state. And independent campaign helped Perdue during her primary battle with Treasurer Richard Moore, for example. What's new about this is that a federal court decision in May – just days before the primary and too late to affect those races – struck down a state limit on individual contributions to independent campaigns. That allowed Barksdale to give $100,000 and others to give huge contributions to the overall McCrory effort – contributions of a size not seen previously in this state.

That may also makes it harder for McCrory to campaign against the moneyed interests who have run Raleigh for a long time. By law his campaign cannot coordinate with the new PAC, which must be independent. But by benefitting from that effort, the McCrory campaign risks the impression that he's just as amenable to special interest money as the Democrats he wants to replace.

Then the question arises: What makes him different?

Jack Betts is an Observer associate editor based in Raleigh: jbetts@charlotteobserver.com.

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