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NC Senate leadership used 2015 law to raise $2.2 million through unlimited donations

Senate leader Phil Berger walks across the floor of the chamber as the N.C. General Assembly reconvenes for a special session on Dec. 13, 2016.
Senate leader Phil Berger walks across the floor of the chamber as the N.C. General Assembly reconvenes for a special session on Dec. 13, 2016. cseward@newsobserver.com

Republican N.C. Senate leaders raised and spent $2.2 million during the last election cycle through a new committee that bypassed the N.C. Republican Party, giving Senate leaders more say in campaign decisions.

The committee uses a 2015 law that allows groups of Republicans or Democrats in either the legislature or statewide elected positions to create fundraising committees that act like political parties, accepting and distributing unlimited donations for campaigns. The law was passed amid concerns by elected Republican leaders about then-NC GOP chairman Hasan Harnett, who didn’t have support from many elected officials in the party and was later ousted from his leadership post.

The N.C. Republican Senatorial Committee, created in January 2016, appears to be the only fundraising committee created under the law. House Republicans did not establish one, nor did legislative Democrats or Council of State members of either party.

More than half of the money raised by the new committee – $1.3 million – came from Senate leader Phil Berger’s campaign, according to campaign finance reports. He was unopposed for re-election last year. Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown’s campaign chipped in $350,000. Jim Goodnight, founder of Cary company SAS, contributed $50,000 – well above the $5,100 limit donors would face giving directly to an individual politician’s campaign.

The committee then spent money on mailers and campaign efforts for GOP senators in contested races, including Sen. John Alexander of Raleigh, Sen. Chad Barefoot of Wake Forest and Sen. Jeff Tarte of Mecklenburg County.

Separately, the NC GOP spent about $2.5 million on key N.C. Senate races, according to executive director Dallas Woodhouse. He said he has no concerns about Berger and others using their own fundraising operation.

“This has caused no issue for us, and we continue to work hand in glove with the N.C. Senate,” Woodhouse said. “It’s important to remember we exist in large part to service their needs – not the other way around.”

A spokesman for Berger’s campaign said the person involved with the Senate Republican committee was out of town and unavailable to comment.

Bob Hall of the election watchdog group Democracy North Carolina called the committee a “slush fund” that allows big donors to “gain influence” because the contributions can be unlimited.

And while lobbyists aren’t allowed to donate to individual campaigns, they can donate to the Senate Republican committee because it functions like a political party. Two lobbyists – Doug Miskew and Henri McClees – donated to the senatorial committee in 2016.

Hall noted that Berger controls how the money is spent. “He can pick and choose which Senate candidate he wants to support in a big way and which ones he wants to starve,” Hall said. “It’s another vehicle to enhance one person’s power.”

When the idea for the committees first surfaced in September 2015, the NC GOP called it a “surprise ‘poison pill’” intended to make state political parties irrelevant. A few weeks later, though, Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore met with Woodhouse in a show of unity.

Woodhouse said this week that GOP leaders had been concerned that then-chairman Harnett “wanted to break longstanding traditions and customs that would divert House and Senate funds to other expenses.” Woodhouse was named executive director a few weeks later and said he “guaranteed that this would not happen under my leadership.”

The NC GOP leader says his organization doesn’t coordinate with the N.C. Republican Senatorial Committee. But he argues that the party’s 2016 success in Senate races – it didn’t lose any seats and defeated one Democratic incumbent – shows that “the system is perfect and we could not ask for better partners.”

Colin Campbell: 919-829-4698, @RaleighReporter

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