Outside groups from environmentalists to gun owners have poured more than $20 million into N.C. campaigns, a record level of spending fueling a surge of attack ads in the state's top races.
That's on top of the millions of dollars campaigns are spending on their own.
“It's safe to say Christmas has come early to the broadcasters there,” said Evan Tracey, who runs the Arlington-based Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks campaign advertising.
Most of the outside money has gone to the U.S. Senate race between Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole and Democrat Kay Hagan. And a lot has gone into the governor's race between Democrat Bev Perdue and Republican Pat McCrory.
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But third-party groups also are spending big in congressional and legislative races.
“It's disturbing particularly because it means our elections are dominated by outside interests,” said Bob Hall, director of Democracy North Carolina, a nonpartisan election watchdog.
“You have the problem of so much money that it can change the character of the campaign by pushing one issue to the forefront that may not be … what should be important to North Carolinians.”
Less than two weeks before the election, the dollars keep coming.
The Washington-based National Education Association, for example, began radio ads Wednesday that tout Perdue and Hagan as well as Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. A spokeswoman declined to say how much it's spending.
And this week, a Republican group called Freedom's Watch spent nearly $900,000 on TV ads criticizing Hagan. It was the group's second such buy.
$6.6 million against Dole
North Carolina's biggest outside spender: the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
The group has poured in more than $6.6 million, according to the Federal Election Commission. Most of the money has gone into anti-Dole TV ads aired in homes across the state. Dole spokesman Dan McLagan said the group has reserved enough air time to push the figure past $11 million.
The DSCC has a lot more to spend than its Republican counterpart. In September alone, it raised twice as much as the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
The NRSC has spent $2.8 million against Hagan, according to the FEC. Freedom's Watch and the National Rifle Association are among others spending against Hagan.
“You have groups that are aiding Republicans because they need the help,” said Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report. “And other groups are trying to prevent a 60-seat Democratic Senate” – the filibuster-proof majority Democrats hope for.
Hagan's allies include the League of Conservation Voters and Citizens for Strength and Security, a group funded mainly by labor unions. The two groups have spent more than $1 million against Dole.
They're among at least 11 groups that have bought TV ads in the Senate race, according to Tracey, whose group tracks campaign advertising. They've accounted for about $10 million worth of ads, he said, while the candidates themselves have accounted for another $7 million.
$4 million against Perdue
Meanwhile, the Republican Governors Association has spent nearly $4 million against Perdue. According to a report filed with the state elections board, donors include people such as Houston homebuilder Bob Perry. A one-time donor to 2004's Swift Vets and POWs for Truth, he gave the RGA $800,000.
The Democratic Governors Association has financed its anti-McCrory campaign through the Alliance for North Carolina, which has spent nearly $2.4 million on ads critical of the Charlotte mayor.
Donors to the Democratic governors group include many lawyers and labor unions. The International Union of Painters and Trades, for example, gave the DGA $350,000.
In the 8th Congressional District, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has spent $651,200 on behalf of Democrat Larry Kissell against Republican Rep. Robin Hayes. In 2006, the DCCC didn't help Kissell until late in the campaign. He went on to lose by 329 votes.
Groups also are active in other statewide and legislative races.
The N.C. Homeowners Alliance, funded by the N.C. Association of Realtors, has spent nearly $150,000 on mailers in support or opposition to legislative candidates. A pro-gun group called Grassroots North Carolina has spent nearly $32,000 on state races.
“We still have competitive races on every level,” says state elections director Gary Bartlett. “That has attracted interest … We're floating in outside money.”