Commentary: A river of mystery cash flows this campaign season

How many of these Congressional incumbents will be there after the election?
How many of these Congressional incumbents will be there after the election? Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT

There's a school of thought that says, let the political money flow like a river, from any and all sources, so long as voters can see who is spending money to boost or attack whom.

Those of us concerned about the outsized influence of wealthy special interests on our elections don't tend to be wild about a system that allows for sky's-the-limit spending, even with the players being identified. But the courts are saying the First Amendment generally trumps those concerns. Free speech? We're all for it.

Here's the bad news: These days, we're increasingly having to settle for the worst of both worlds. That means gobs of spending and no disclosure.

The struggle for control of Congress and state legislatures - the latter especially important in a census year, with redistricting on the horizon - increasingly is being shaped by outside groups that are supposed to operate independently of candidates' own campaigns. According to the watchdog organization Public Citizen, in a study noted last week by The Wall Street Journal, several dozen such groups are running TV and radio ads pointing toward the Nov. 2 election.

About a third of those groups have disclosed their funding sources. That compares to half of them two years ago and nearly all in the elections of 2006 and 2004.

And of outside groups supporting Republican candidates, 10 percent have identified their donors, Public Citizen reported, whereas half of the groups singing from the Democratic hymn book matched names to contributions. Funny that the GOP draws more support from folks who prefer to sneak around without letting the public know what they're up to.

Funny, also, that one of the poster children for anonymous slash-and-burn campaigning happens to be based right over here in Cary. It's an outfit called - chortle - the Committee for Truth in Politics.

The Journal's Brody Mullins reports that the committee is in the midst of a $7 million effort to boost Republican candidates for Congress. Its incorporation papers show the same address as the office of attorney Bill Peaslee, who has been the North Carolina GOP's chief of staff and who now sits on the State Board of Elections.

When the Journal queried Peaslee, he referred the call to an attorney who has led national efforts to gut campaign finance regulations, Indiana-based James Bopp Jr. (a veteran of past North Carolina-focused legal tussles). Bopp was a key player in the lawsuit that led to the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling earlier this year - the ruling that, shockingly, has allowed companies and unions to spend money from their treasuries on independent campaigns.

People can give money to the Committee in Truth in Politics without being identified because of the way it's set up under the tax code, as a non-profit "social welfare" group. Bopp told the Journal that many donors prefer to remain incognito to avoid harassment by the government. Or, perhaps they don't want their customers or shareholders to know who's helping to finance those attack ads.

Now, here's a chance to pay our moneybags friend Art Pope a back-handed compliment. Pope, the Raleigh retailing executive who essentially pays the bills at the libertarian/conservative John Locke Foundation and Civitas Institute, is throwing his financial weight around this campaign season with impressive energy. But at least in some cases - the only ones we can find out about, of course - he's doing it in the open. Way to go, Art.

Pope's company, Variety Wholesalers, contributed $100,000 to a group called Real Jobs NC, which in recent weeks has ripped Democratic legislators in mailers. (He's also on the national board of Americans for Prosperity, which has been trying to make life miserable for North Carolina's Democratic congressmen.) Come to find out, thanks to The N&O's online political digest, the Insider, that Pope also is bankrolling an offshoot of the Civitas Institute that has aimed mailers at the General Assembly's two top Democrats.

Civitas Action has spent at least $5,570 sending material into the districts of House Speaker Joe Hackney and Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight. Yes, there's plenty of dough left. According to the Insider, the group's reports filed with the State Board of Elections showed a fundraising total of $264,889, including $190,000 from Variety Wholesalers and the rest from Americans for Prosperity.

With the gates open for corporate spending, activists such as Pope have a new way to exert their influence, whether it's for ideological reasons, business reasons or some combination of the two.

Now just wait until the next Wake County school board elections, likely to again draw Pope's interest as a backer of Republican candidates. Will there be a Variety Wholesalers slate? Or would he turn to something like the Committee for Truth in Politics so he could keep his cards closer to the vest? Stand-up fellow that he is, here's guessing that he'd just openly put his money on the table and dare anyone to try to match it.