Politics & Government

Big Tobacco is back trying to influence elections – especially in NC

A tobacco field in Wilson, N.C., as seen in a file photo from Aug. 5, 2006. At that time, a Wilson County Agriculture Extension agent said the amount of tobacco being grown was increasing.
A tobacco field in Wilson, N.C., as seen in a file photo from Aug. 5, 2006. At that time, a Wilson County Agriculture Extension agent said the amount of tobacco being grown was increasing. AP

Big Tobacco intensified its political activity in 2016 – and almost all its efforts were directed at defeating a Democratic North Carolina candidate for the U.S. Senate.

Tobacco interests’ activity was its steepest in 14 years, as it spent more than $1.1 million to support Grow NC Strong, a group that attacked Deborah Ross, who ran an unsuccessful challenge against Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., according to federal election records.

Tobacco also gave almost $200,000 to Burr’s campaign, about three times as much as it gave to any other candidate. The numbers were compiled from federal records by the D.C.-based nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

“Tobacco has a long history of spending to influence legislators,” said Patrick Reynolds, the 68-year-old grandson of tobacco giant founder R. J. Reynolds.

Now a fierce opponent of tobacco, Reynolds said, “They spend a lot because they get what they pay for.”

In the election that ended with Burr beating Ross by 6 percentage points, Grow NC Strong produced an attack ad against Ross that had nothing to do with tobacco. The ad noted that Ross had opposed a proposal to expand DNA collection from criminals and painted her as “standing with criminals and their lawyers, not with you.”

Sen. Richard Burr's campaign donations from energy and tobacco companies' employees and political action committees since his election to Congress in 1994.

The Grow NC Strong Facebook page has only this video, and the organization’s total spending in the 2016 elections was $1.27 million, with $1.19 million spent on attacking candidates, almost all of that directed at Ross.

Ross did not respond to requests for comment, though a staff member did say that they had been unaware of the extent of the tobacco money that went to defeat their campaign.

Grow NC Strong’s website notes that it is “Not authorized by any candidate or candidate’s committee.” However, when visitors click on a donate button they are asked to “Contribute to Support Richard’s Vision for NC.” It is not clear whether the Richard mentioned is Burr, and questions directed to the email address listed on the group’s Federal Election Commission filing were not answered. Grow NC Strong formed in 2013 to support the election of Sen. Thom Tillis, a Republican who defeated incumbent Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan the next year.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, which researches and analyzes campaign financing, Grow NC Strong raised $1,477,321 for the 2016 campaign. Of that, $1,198,880 is listed as having been spent “against Democrats” and $1,182,214 as against Ross. Another $60,000 is reported as having been spent “For Burr.”

David Sutton, a spokesman for tobacco giant Altria, said in an email response to questions, “We participate in the political process in many ways.” Included in that participation: “Altria provided a $25,000 contribution (not $1.1 million) to Grow NC Strong (a federal independent expenditure committee).” Altria’s products include Marlboro cigarettes and Skol chewing tobacco.

Grow NC Strong lists its primary donor as RAI Services, also known as the Winston-Salem, North Carolina-based tobacco company Reynolds American, which gave $1.1 million. Reynolds did not respond to a request for comment. Reynolds is best known for producing cigarette brands such as Camel, Doral and Kent.

Still, the anti-Ross ad never mentioned tobacco. Tobacco, which still spends about $20 million a year in the nation’s capital on lobbying efforts, is pushing to keep e-cigarettes unrestricted and to keep the Food and Drug Administration from restricting modifications and banning the flavoring of tobacco, especially menthol.

Tobacco was hardly the only so-called outside money in support of Burr that flowed into the North Carolina race. Outside money is not directly affiliated with a candidate and not subject to the tight restrictions that govern how much a single donor can give to a candidate or political party.

In all, Burr benefited from about $30 million in outside money. He was also the target of almost $28 million of negative outside money.

Burr is known as, and is proud of being, a longtime friend of tobacco.

Republicans were defending 24 of the 34 seats in play last year as they tried to maintain control of the Senate. They succeeded, and now control 52 of the 100 seats. Anti-tobacco activists saw reasons to worry because of the amount of the money spent on a race that had been thought before the election to be key to maintaining Republican control of the Senate.

“It’s a big concern, and I don’t think the timing was accidental,” said Matt Myers, president of the D.C.-based Campaign for Tobacco-free Kids. “They’ve seen a rare window of opportunity to roll back the progress we’ve made.”

He said that progress included having reduced the number of people under 19 who smoked from 36 percent 20 years ago to about 10 percent today.

Myers classified Burr as a good friend to tobacco. Even back in 2007, when tobacco was politically toxic, Burr vigorously opposed FDA oversight of the industry, calling the ultimately successful effort misguided.

Burr would not address any specifics about his intentions in backing tobacco in the Senate. He did, however, say this week that he believed it was his responsibility to “support and protect” tobacco.

“Tobacco farming is a substantial part of North Carolina’s economy,” Burr wrote in an email answer to questions. “Fighting to support and protect the interests of the North Carolina families who are making a living through tobacco farming is no different than supporting the interests of North Carolina’s world-class health care and research institutions.”

Ross, on the other hand, supported a public smoking ban as far back as 2009, though she was not known as a fierce opponent of tobacco.

Myers warns that “their willingness to spend to defend the status quo is almost unlimited.”

Tobacco’s federal campaign spending in 2016 was about 25 percent higher than in 2014 or 2012. Anti-tobacco advocates say tobacco spent more in state campaigns, including about $100 million to fight cigarette tax increases in California, Colorado and North Dakota. Tobacco lost in California but won in the other two states.

Tobacco industry contributions peaked in 1996, when tobacco was settling state lawsuits over whether it was responsible for paying for health problems stemming from smoking. The final settlement was reached in 1998 and the amount came to at least $206 billion.

At that time, tobacco was spending about $10 million per federal election cycle on political races. Former Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, has admitted that in 1995 he handed out tobacco election-donation checks on the House floor.

By 2004, and continuing through the 2014 elections, tobacco’s contributions remained between $3.2 million and $4.2 million, and none of it in outside money.

In the 2016 election cycle, while tobacco’s contributions to political action committees – the political arms of corporations, labor unions and others –and directly to candidates remained about the same as they had been for 14 years, it added another $1.6 million beyond what it had been spending in recent elections in soft money donations.

“Soft money has the advantage of not tagging a candidate as a pawn of Big Tobacco,” Myers said. “Tobacco continues to poll at the bottom of industries in terms of credibility.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article gave the wrong margin of victory by Sen. Richard Burr over challenger Deborah Ross. It was six percentage points.

Matthew Schofield: 202-383-6066, @mattschodcnews