Politics & Government

Big campaign money gives big voice to few NC donors

Five years ago next Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court gave big donors a louder voice in political campaigns, and North Carolina has been no exception.

Fifty North Carolinians gave federal candidates and committees a total of of $4.5 million, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics and the Charlotte Observer.

That was 13 percent of the $33 million that thousands N.C. donors gave in reported contributions to federal campaigns. And that itself was a fraction of the record $3.7 billion spent across the country on the elections.

The high court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling unleashed a flood of political money and opened the door for super PACs, which could for the first time accept unlimited campaign contributions from corporations, unions and individuals.

North Carolina saw the nation’s first $100 million U.S. Senate race last year. The latest figures show more than $116 million spent in the race that saw Republican Thom Tillis unseat Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan.

Just 10 N.C. donors spent almost $2 million on everything from Republican and Democratic candidates and party committees to a Kansas super PAC that sought to elect an independent to the Senate.

“We’re finding that the percentage of American contributors to political campaigns or political groups is going down and the influence of wealthy individuals is going up,” said political scientist David McLennan of Meredith College.

“So it’s no surprise that 10 North Carolinians have had such a major influence on federal campaigns in 2014.”

N.C. donors favor GOP

North Carolina donors leaned heavily Republican.

More than 60 percent of N.C. contributions overall went to GOP candidates, party groups or conservative committees. Among the top 10 donors, more than 68 percent went to Republicans.

The figures from the Center for Responsive Politics understate the total amount of money spent on the election. Because it includes only money reported to the Federal Election Commission, it omits so-called “dark” money given to and spent by nonprofit groups. That type of contribution does not have to be reported.

It also does not include money spent at the state level.

Raleigh businessman Bob Luddy, for example, not only spent $362,000 on federal campaigns but at least $315,000 on state races, according to the N.C. State Board of Elections.

Bob Hall, who tracks political money as executive director of Democracy North Carolina, said like federal campaigns, North Carolina races have gotten more expensive. And as at the federal level, outside groups have played an increasing role in state politics.

The N.C. League of Conservation Voters spent over $540,000 trying to unseat three Buncombe County lawmakers, two of whom lost their seats. And Justice for All, funded mostly by the nonprofit Republican State Leadership Committee, spent more than $1.4 million to influence judicial races.

“We are increasingly having a political system where money is the determinate factor in who can have their voice heard,” Hall said. “We’re moving away from one person, one vote into an elitist oligarchy.”

Fewer ‘picking up the tab’

Russ Choma, a money and politics reporter for the Center for Responsive Politics, said that although spending has jumped, the election saw fewer overall donors. “So there are fewer people picking up the tab,” he said.

While campaign costs continue to soar and big donors play an even bigger role, McLennan said, smaller donors tend to sit on the sidelines.

“They don’t feel like they have any shot at getting access or having influence over politics when they compare themselves to a Bob Luddy or a (SAS Institute CEO) Jim Goodnight,” he said.

Related stories from Charlotte Observer