Why are outside groups getting involved in Charlotte’s local election?

Democrat Vi Lyles faces Republican Kenny Smith in Charlotte’s mayoral race
Democrat Vi Lyles faces Republican Kenny Smith in Charlotte’s mayoral race

Over ominous music and grainy images, the ad’s narrator intones a stark comparison:

“Who is Vi Lyles?” he asks. “Vi Lyles IS Jennifer Roberts.”

The ad’s sponsor isn’t Republican Kenny Smith, who faces Democrat Lyles in Charlotte’s mayor race.

It’s the North Carolina Values Coalition, one of a handful of outside groups trying to influence the mayoral election. It’s the most visible way such groups have participated in memory.

Charlotteans are already voting early to elect a successor to Roberts, the Democratic incumbent.

At least one of the outside players is a so-called “dark money” group that doesn’t have to reveal its donors.

The interest comes in the first election since Charlotte became the epicenter of a national debate over LGBTQ rights: When the city passed an ordinance to extend those rights last year, the General Assembly responded with House Bill 2, nullifying the ordinance. The ensuing controversy sparked a national backlash against the state.

“HB2 and the national prominence that that put on Charlotte gives groups more incentive to play here,” said UNC Charlotte political scientist Eric Heberlig. “They see how local decisions can be relevant to their national agendas.”

That’s one reason outside groups are investing in the race.

▪ The Values Coalition, a conservative group that backed HB2, has made what executive director Tami Fitzgerald calls a “five-figure” buy to run digital ads and produce mailers.

▪ Forward Charlotte, a group of unidentified “concerned citizens,” has spent more than $16,000 so far on radio and digital ads that attack Lyles.

▪ Backing Lyles, meanwhile, is The Collective, a political action committee that supports progressive African American candidates around the country. Spokesman Quentin James said the group has mainly directed individual contributions to Lyles through ActBlue, an online clearinghouse for Democratic donors.

▪ And the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBTQ rights organization, is knocking on doors and phone-banking for Lyles, according to spokesman Chris Sgro.

In the primary, records show the HRC spent nearly $15,000 on behalf of Roberts, the highest-profile champion of Charlotte’s non-discrimination ordinance.

Forward Charlotte, which does not have to identify its donors, is running radio ads that essentially cast Lyles as a flip-flopper on affordable housing and other issues. And, like the Values Coalition, it’s airing digital ads to underscore its message.

Digital advertising allows such groups – as well as the candidates themselves – to target specific audiences. With Facebook, for example, an advertiser can target the 13,000 people in the Charlotte area identified as moderates “likely to engage” with a political message.

“If you have a lot of money and awareness is your objective, TV advertising is great,” said Keely Saye, a digital marketing specialist from Charlotte. “But if you want to target a more specific population and not spend as much money, then digital advertising is way less expensive.”

By carefully targeting audiences, groups hope to increase turnout among sympathetic voters. In what’s expected to be a low-turnout race, that could be important.

The Values Coalition, which has endorsed Smith and several GOP council candidates, is targeting conservative voters, according to Fitzgerald. Its ad, which has at least 53,000 views on Facebook, says that, like Roberts, Lyles endorsed “a radical national LGBT agenda.”

“It’s important to the city of Charlotte as well as to the state … to have people leading the city who are working on issues that are important to local people … instead of advancing divisive national ordinances like Jennifer Roberts and Vi Lyles have done,” Fitzgerald said.

Sgro, of the Human Rights Campaign, calls the Values ad “disgusting and untruthful.”

“Charlotteans have shown they are not interested in fear-mongering,” he said. “The Queen City stands with equality.”

Asked to comment on the outside involvement, Smith consultant Steve Michael said, “With 10 days remaining, our campaign is entirely focused on our internal operation.… We feel confident Kenny’s message of a focused government, on Charlotte’s core issues, has resonated with voters.”

Lyles did not comment specifically on outside groups, but said she’s supported “by people contributing because I stand for the issues of affordable housing, jobs and great neighborhoods.”

Democratic consultant Dan McCorkle said Charlotte can expect to see more outside involvement in local races.

“From now on this is the way it’s going to go in Charlotte,” he said. “This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to outside groups trying to influence local elections. We’re big time now.”

Jim Morrill: 704-358-5059, @jimmorrill