A donor’s tantrum shows how bad money in politics is getting

The Observer editorial board

Bob Luddy, a top N.C. political donor, is unhappy with a House budget that has too many tax credits and too little tax cutting.
Bob Luddy, a top N.C. political donor, is unhappy with a House budget that has too many tax credits and too little tax cutting. 2013 NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

Have you ever contributed to political candidates or parties?

If so, you probably didn’t agree with all their policy positions. More likely, you shared enough of their principles to want to share some of your money.

Then there’s Bob Luddy.

He’s a successful Raleigh businessman. He chairs the board of the Civitas Institute, a conservative think tank. He’s also a major donor to state and federal candidates and campaigns.

This week, he made it known that he’ll be a little less generous, at least to some North Carolina Republicans. In an email to N.C. lawmakers, he complained that House Republicans were too liberal with tax credits and didn’t include enough new tax cuts in their budget.

Luddy’s punishment: He’s pulling his annual donation of $25,000 to the House Republicans’ campaign committee and sending it instead to the conservative advocacy group Americans For Prosperity.

Luddy could have done so quietly, of course. But in posting his email on the Civitas web site, he decided instead to stomp his feet publicly at the prospect of his conservative wishes being ignored.

Even to the jaded among us, it’s a jarring example of the increasingly transactional culture of campaign donations. It’s also a blunt illustration of a system in which smaller voices are getting drowned out more and more by big money.

In North Carolina politics, Luddy is very big money. He donated $160,000 to the N.C. Republican Party during the 2014 campaign cycle, and a recent Observer analysis placed him as the top N.C. donor to federal campaigns.

So make no mistake: This week’s email was about more than $25,000. It was a shot across the fundraising bow.

It also might have been borderline illegal. Campaign finance law forbids trading a campaign contribution for a specific action by a legislator. Withholding a campaign contribution for lack of specific action may not cross that line on its own, but it’s the kind of quid-pro-quo that should make everyone squeamish.

It’s no secret that money has always talked loudly in politics. But thanks to rollbacks in campaign finance laws, along with the Supreme Court’s ill-advised Citizens United ruling, wealth has as big of an influence as ever – regardless of party. Luddy’s outburst this week is a reflection of how emboldened big donors have become.

Luddy sees it differently. Without a touch of intended irony, he told the (Raleigh) News & Observer that his move this week was designed to combat the influence of lobbyists on N.C. lawmakers and the budget. “If there’s anything that really upsets me,” he said, “it’s special interests.”

Apparently, he’s more of a purist. You know – one person, one vote. And a whole lot of dollars.