'Classic dirty politics': This deep-pocketed group is trying to sway an NC election

The primary is May 8.
The primary is May 8. Observer file

Sen. David Curtis knew he'd face a tough primary in his dramatically redrawn district.

He didn’t know he’d also be facing an outside group that has spent more than $106,000 on TV ads, mailers and phone calls against him.

"I don’t mind losing a race if it's a fair fight," said the Lincoln County Republican. "But this is classic dirty politics."

The spending comes from a group called N.C. Citizens for Clear Action. Funded by eye surgeons, it appears to be a response to legislation backed by Curtis, an optometrist. Last year he co-sponsored a bill to allow optometrists to perform certain procedures now reserved for eye doctors.

The N.C. Society of Eye Physicians and Surgeons spent $200,000 on a TV campaign to fight the legislation. A new report shows that the society's PAC gave Clear Action $150,000 last month.

Registered just three weeks ago, it's a so-called 527 group. Such organizations can raise unlimited funds from individuals, corporations or unions but must disclose their contributions and spending to the Internal Revenue Service.

It's one of more than two dozen North Carolina groups formed this year to help sway elections.

Some, like a pro-Democratic group called Flip NC, are partisan. Some, like Women Awake PAC, which backs progressive women in Wake County, are more targeted. And some, like N.C. Citizens for a Better Tomorrow, are single issue. Spokesman Brian Jodice, interim president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, said the group plans to help a half-dozen lawmakers who support school choice.

David Curtis
Republican Sen. David Curtis didn’t know he’d also be facing an outside group that has spent more than $106,000 on TV ads, mailers and phone calls against him. Special to the Observer

Some of the new groups are party committees and political action committees bound by contribution limits and disclosure rules. Others are independent expenditure groups which, since the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United ruling, can take unlimited contributions.

"It’s definitely the new reality, post the Citizens United case," said Bob Phillips, executive director Common Cause North Carolina. "Big groups can kind of engage in hit-and-run tactics where they're pounding their target with a lot of money. It's certainly a troubling trend."

This week Citizens for Clear Action filed a report that shows it also got $25,000 from a group called N.C. Citizens for Patient Safety. IRS records show it's funded largely by the N.C. Society of Anesthesiologists.

Curtis, 69, faces two GOP opponents in District 44, which includes Lincoln and Cleveland counties and a portion of Gaston County.

Records show Clear Action has spent $106,000 on TV and other ads attacking Curtis. By comparison, Curtis spent $256,000 in the 2016 election.

Dee Stewart is a consultant for the 527 group and a partner with Paul Shumaker, a consultant who worked for the Society of Eye Physicians and Surgeons.

"A lot of people who aren’t happy about many of the actions taken by Senator Curtis in the Senate are exercising their free speech rights," Stewart said.

The ads against Curtis don't mention health care or the optometry bill. Instead they say he voted to raise taxes by supporting a bill that extended the sales tax to many services. Though lawmakers did that, they dramatically cut personal and corporate income taxes. Curtis also supported those measures.

He calls the ads a "smokescreen."

"It's a smokescreen to take me out," he said. "They want to take me out and send a warning to every legislator: 'If you cross us, we’re coming after you.' "

Jim Morrill, 704-358-5059; @jimmorrill