Independent groups’ spending on North Carolina’s torrid Senate race has soared beyond $58 million, far eclipsing the money raised by the candidates, Republican Sen. Richard Burr and Democratic challenger Deborah Ross, the latest Federal Election Commission data shows.
That brings the total cost of the race climaxing on Tuesday to at least $81 million. Burr’s and Ross’ campaigns so far have reported raising a combined $23 million, less than 30 percent of the total expended on the high-stakes contest, which could decide control of the U.S. Senate.
Most of the independent money has come from outside the state, much of it from wealthy individuals and corporations, which are free to make unlimited donations to so-called “super” political action committees so long as the amounts of their contributions and their identities are disclosed.
$58 million Outside spending in the NC Senate race between Richard Burr and Deborah Ross
$23 million How much Burr and Ross have raised through their campaigns
The deluge of spending illustrates the degree to which the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling, in a case brought by the conservative watchdog group Citizens United, and other recent court decisions have lifted the lid on campaign spending and left opaque the sources of some of the money in the North Carolina race.
Donations to a super PAC specifically aiming to boost Burr’s prospects include $100,000 each from a tobacco giant and from two Florida sugar companies. Other super PACs seeking to influence multiple races got contributions of as much as $6 million from rich Americans.
Outside groups spending the most on the race include:
▪ The Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC formed by a former top aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., that has spent $13.6 million on ads attacking Ross. The fund has raised more than $63 million to try to help Republicans stave off the Democrats’ campaign to regain control of the Senate.
▪ The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, a national party committee that has spent $10.6 million in the race, largely on ads assailing Burr’s record during his five terms in the House of Representatives and two in the Senate.
▪ The National Rifle Association, which has spent $6.1 million backing Burr, a strong defender of gun owners’ Second Amendment rights amid calls for tighter controls to curb a wave of mass shootings across America.
▪ The Senate Majority Fund, a committee loosely affiliated with the retiring Senate Democratic leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, that has spent $4.4 million backing Ross.
Among the biggest contributors to the Senate Majority Fund are Chicago billionaire Fred Eychener, who gave $6 million, and liberal billionaire George Soros, who donated $1.5 million. Soros’ son, Alexander, identified as a student, donated another $1.2 million.
New York hedge fund chief Paul Singer, a major Republican donor, contributed $3 million to the Senate Leadership Fund.
“It is hard to say that we have a campaign finance system with limits on the amounts you can give and who can give when the public sees million-dollar contributions being given to super PACs and other organizations that are going to influence the election,” said Lawrence Noble, who served for 13 years as general counsel of the Federal Election Commission. “It alienates the average voter. What influence can you have with a $25 contribution?”
It is hard to say that we have a campaign finance system with limits on the amounts you can give and who can give when the public sees million-dollar contributions being given to super PACs and other organizations that are going to influence the election.
Lawrence Noble, general counsel, Campaign Legal Center
From Oct. 1 to Oct. 19, the Senate Leadership Fund raised $18 million, including $11 million from a nonprofit group, One Nation, that’s part of a conservative fundraising network assembled by Republican strategist Karl Rove.
One Nation’s donation is emblematic of the new wave of so-called “dark money” that’s becoming a significant factor in elections as a result of the court decisions. As a social welfare organization, One Nation apparently is permitted to engage in partisan political activities without revealing its donors, so long as the group’s primary mission is pursuing “social welfare” activities.
The Sunlight Foundation, which follows the issue, says the Internal Revenue Service has yet to take enforcement action against a social welfare group that gave money to a super PAC, whose goal is almost always partisan.
If One Nation or any similar tax-exempt organization accepts money “with the knowledge it’s going to be contributed to a super PAC, it should be reported as coming from the original donor,” said Noble, now general counsel of the Washington-based Campaign Legal Center. The failure to do so, he said, “shows the problem now with this dark money.”
The nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation says the Internal Revenue Service has yet to take enforcement action against a social welfare group that gave money to a super PAC, whose goal is almost always partisan.
One super PAC aiding Burr is Grow NC Strong, a Raleigh-based committee initially formed to support former state House Speaker Thom Tillis’ successful 2014 Senate bid, in which he narrowly defeated Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan.
The group’s early donors this election cycle included two major Florida sugar producers, U.S. Sugar Corp. and the Florida Crystals Corp., each of which gave $50,000. Members of BGR Group, a Washington lobbying firm that includes former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, gave $11,500.
In October, Grow NC Strong reported receiving $100,000 from Reynolds American, the tobacco maker based in Burr’s hometown of Winston-Salem, and $115,000 from Custom Management Services Inc., a firm in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. A McClatchy records search could find no trace of the company. An official of the super PAC did not respond to a phone call.
A few days ago, the group reported spending a total of $1.2 million to support Burr, far more than the cash it had reported receiving. Who footed the expense won’t be known until its next report, due after the election.
End Citizens United, a group committed to overturning the Supreme Court campaign finance decision, has spent $1.8 million supporting Deborah Ross’ Democratic bid for the North Carolina Senate seat – all from small donations.
Donors to larger, outside super PACs playing roles in the North Carolina race amount to a who’s who of wealthy Americans.
The Republican Senate Leadership Fund’s contributions included: $2 million from Warren Stephens, president and chief executive officer of the Little Rock bank Stephens Inc., and another $500,000 from the bank itself; $1 million from Annette Simmons, widow of the late Fort Worth billionaire and major Republican donor Harold Simmons; and $45,000 from Hank Paulson, a former U.S. treasury secretary and former chief of Wall Street banking giant Goldman Sachs. Michigan billionaire Richard DeVos and his family members, who already had made the maximum allowable donations to Burr’s campaign, put up $1 million for the GOP fund.
Women Vote!, a super PAC founded by the abortion rights network EMILY’s List that has spent $2.8 million opposing Burr, reported receiving $3 million from Florida financier and philanthropist Donald Sussman and $1,040,000 from former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
One conspicuous outside donor is the man hoping to succeed McConnell as Senate majority leader if Democrats win control: New York Sen. Chuck Schumer. He tapped his own campaign fund in September to give over $6 million to back Democratic Senate candidates, including $3 million for the party’s senatorial committee and $250,000 for the North Carolina Democratic Party.
End Citizens United, a group committed to overturning the Supreme Court campaign finance decision, has spent $1.8 million supporting Ross – mainly from small donations.