National labor unions, major corporations and longtime Washington insiders are investing heavily in North Carolina political races this year.
Out-of-state political groups could spend nearly $10 million on North Carolina's races for governor and U.S. senator, mostly on television and radio ads, and some are considering putting money into the presidential race here as well.
The candidates who are most likely to be targeted are Republicans: U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole, gubernatorial candidate Pat McCrory, and possibly presidential candidate John McCain.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beverly Perdue could also be on the list.
Though outside spending is nothing new in North Carolina, the amount of money involved is higher than in past years. The early appearance of negative ads has already put some candidates on the defensive on such issues as campaign contributions, tax breaks for oil companies and the minimum wage.
Experts say the deluge of out-of-state money is due to several factors: closer-than-usual races in North Carolina, strong Democratic fundraising nationally, and the confluence of big-ticket races for president, governor and senator on the same ballot.
The biggest target for outside groups is the U.S. Senate race between Dole, a Salisbury Republican in her first term, and state Sen. Kay Hagan, a Greensboro Democrat who has spent a decade in the legislature.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee recruited Hagan and is prepared to spend as much as $8 million here. It has already run two TV ads attacking Dole's effectiveness and slyly bringing up the subject of her age.
The group is targeting North Carolina as part of an effort to get a filibuster-proof supermajority of 60 Democratic senators, and also because it has fewer Democratic Senate seats to defend, spokesman Matthew Miller said.
Its major donors include the investment banking firm Morgan Stanley, the hedge fund Fortress Investment Group and political action committees run by a number of Democratic senators, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Its GOP counterpart, the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, has lagged behind, raising $58.8 million to the DSCC's $93.3 million by the end of July.
The head of the Republican group recently said it would try to match Democratic spending in states such as North Carolina, but right now it doesn't have the money to do so.
Americans for Prosperity, a national limited government advocacy group with an active North Carolina chapter, is spending $300,000 on radio ads praising Dole's support of offshore drilling and oil shale development.
‘527' groups at work
Bob Hall, executive director of the campaign finance reform group Democracy North Carolina, said that the estimated spending is a little higher than the $7 million in soft money spent in 2000 – which would be worth $9 million today when adjusted for inflation.
The difference is that money came from donors across the country to the national parties, then to state parties to help candidates, whereas today's money is going to independent organizations, called 527 groups after the section of the law that created them.
Even a smaller buy can put a candidate on the defensive.
In late July, an independent group called the Alliance for North Carolina began running a $450,000 ad attacking McCrory, the GOP candidate for governor, for his stands on the minimum wage, community college tuition and pay raises for Charlotte officials.
The McCrory campaign initially dismissed the ad – even agreeing that he opposes a plan to make community college free – but it prompted them to start airing their own ad two weeks ahead of schedule, instead of waiting until after Labor Day.
Funding for the attack ad came from the Democratic Governors Association, a national group that works to elect Democrats, and the National Education Association, a teachers union affiliated with the N.C. Association of Educators.
‘A whole new wrinkle'
McCrory campaign adviser Jack Hawke said third-party ads can insulate candidates from nasty attacks launched on their behalf, because by law such ads can't be coordinated with a campaign.
“It's put a whole new wrinkle in politics,” he said. “All of a sudden you've got outside groups making allegations, while the candidate can say ‘Oh, I don't know anything about that, I had nothing to do with it,' while they're in the back room cheering.”
Democratic consultant Mac McCorkle, who is advising Perdue, said he'd much rather just run his own ads. Outside groups can cause a backlash, he noted, by straying too far off message or taking a harsher tone than the candidate wants to put forward.
“It clearly is a disruptive force, and it adds another element of uncertainty,” he said. “You are always trying to game out what the other side may do, and then you've got these third and fourth parties in the conversation, too.”
Perdue may face her own third-party attacks as well.
The Republican Governors Association recently formed a political action committee that raised nearly $390,000 by the end of June, although it has not yet aired any ads or announced any plans in the governors' race.
Although the third-party ads are independently created, they often echo the lines of argument of the candidates they are designed to benefit. The Alliance for North Carolina, for example, attacked McCrory for opposing Perdue's plan to provide free community college tuition.
Carter Wrenn, a longtime Republican political consultant, said it's fairly obvious to the heads of third-party groups what the campaigns would want.
“You have people who have come out of the same political school, so they tend to look at things the same way,” Wrenn said. “Still, you always sort of suspect that maybe in the back rooms in the dead of night there's a little bit of communication going on.”