A Republican group has moved quickly to exploit a change in election laws that lets it raise money from contributors across the country to help elect Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory as North Carolina's governor.
The Republican Governors Association has established an N.C. political action committee and raised nearly $390,000 in less than three months.
Most of the money has come from a handful of contributors who have shown little or no interest in N.C. politics in the past.
Contributors include top executives of the Coors Brewing Co. in Colorado and the Curves fitness center chain, which is based in Waco, Texas.
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The PAC's biggest contributor is James Barksdale of Ridgeland, Miss., the former chief executive officer of Netscape. He gave $100,000.
McCrory is running on the issue of changing the culture of state government, which he says is controlled by big-money special interests. But his campaign is welcoming the association's help.
“We certainly aren't concerned if business people from around the country are interested in this race,” said Richard Hudson, McCrory's campaign manager. “Especially given the fact that labor union money and special-interest money is going to be flowing into the Democratic party to support our opponent.”
David Kochman, a spokesman for Democratic gubernatorial nominee Bev Perdue, said the McCrory campaign's acceptance of the PAC's money shows McCrory is not serious about campaign-finance reform.
“I think it's ironic that a guy who claims he wants to change the political culture would be welcoming this type of activity,” Kochman said.
The association's PAC is an independent expenditure committee, which can spend on ads and get-out-the-vote efforts for a candidate so long as those endeavors are not coordinated with a campaign.
On May 1, the 4th Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals threw out North Carolina's limits on campaign contributions to these committees, which had been $4,000 per election cycle. Individuals can now give as much as they want.
“This is a new animal we have in North Carolina for the 2008 election,” said Kim Westbrook Strach, the State Board of Elections' deputy director for campaign finance.
Public interest groups have long been concerned about unlimited political contributions.
“Sometimes when you have these independent groups, campaigns get turned into who can produce the most outrageous campaign ad or the most salacious soundbite. And that's not good for elections in North Carolina,” said Bryan Warner, communications director for the nonprofit N.C. Center for Voter Education.
Top donors, weak N.C. ties
The association appears to be the first group to take advantage of the federal court ruling, which was the result of a suit by N.C. Right to Life, its political action committee and its fund for independent political expenditures.
The association created the PAC three days after the decision.
According to its organizational filing, the purpose is “to make independent expenditures in support of (the) Republican nominee for governor.”
“Pat McCrory is a phenomenal candidate,” said RGA spokesman Chris Schrimpf. “And if he was not the current candidate, we would probably not have a PAC in North Carolina now.”
State campaign finance reports show little involvement in North Carolina politics by the major contributors to the Republican governors' PAC. One contributor, Dan Crippen, a consultant from Bethesda, Md., for Schaller Anderson, a health care company, said he did not know his $25,000 contribution was going toward the North Carolina governor's race.
Crippen is an economic adviser to Republican U.S. Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign and a former director of the Congressional Budget Office. He said he is a longtime supporter of the association and its mission and did not disagree with how his contribution is being spent.
“I gave it to the RGA to do with it what they thought best,” Crippen said.
Schrimpf said contributors are not told where their money will go beyond the association's general mission of helping Republicans get elected in gubernatorial contests. He said no efforts are made to promote contributors' business interests.
Strach said the PAC is legal, but she is concerned if contributions originally went to the association, and it then placed them into a political action committee. North Carolina election law promotes transparency in political giving by prohibiting contributions from being given in the name of another.
The Politico, an online news organization devoted to politics, reported last week that the Republican Governors Association was on track to raise a record-breaking $30 million for political campaigns this year. The Republican association had nearly $21 million cash in hand.
So far, the Republican PAC has not spent money in the governor's race. North Carolina is one of a handful of states with competitive governor races that the association has said it would deploy campaign money.
PACs also support Perdue
Hudson, McCrory's campaign manager, said he did not become aware of the PAC until The News & Observer informed him of it Wednesday.
“We, by law, are not allowed to know what they are up to and we don't try to find out,” Hudson said.
He said Perdue can expect unions and other special interests that have donated big money to the N.C. Democratic Party to help her campaign.
N.C. Democratic Party filings show that the Teamsters' PAC has contributed $31,000, and the RGA's counterpart, the Democratic Governors Association, has chipped in $112,000. There is no limit on contributions to state political parties.
The latest campaign filings show McCrory has raised $2.2 million for his gubernatorial campaign. Perdue has raised $9.9 million.
Staff writer Ryan Teague Beckwith, and news researchers Denise Jones and David Raynor contributed to this report