Outside groups pour millions into 3 pivotal NC congressional races

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Kathy Manning (in red jacket), the Democratic candidate for the 13th Congressional District, is joined by US Rep. John Lewis (third from right) and other Democratic Party luminaries. (photo by Carolyn de Berry)

Outside groups are sloshing money into advertising campaigns in an attempt to sway voters in the three competitive congressional races.

The ad has only one purpose: Dampen enthusiasm among people who are otherwise inclined to support Democrat Kathy Manning in the closely matched 13th Congressional District race.

The 30-second television spot, which began running on local stations in early October, superimposes a photo of a triumphant Manning celebrating her Democratic primary election victory over a bird’s eye view of the palatial home in Greensboro’s Hamilton Lakes neighborhood that the candidate owns with her husband. The deadpan narration, coupled with the ad’s imagery, sends an unmistakable message: This candidate and her husband are wealthy elites, and she doesn’t care about ordinary voters.

After the setup comes the body blow.

“Now, they want a luxury hotel,” the narrator intones. “But they want taxpayers to help pay for it. So they got nearly $2 million in government money from Greensboro. But it wasn’t enough. So Kathy took part in a $30 million scheme for a parking garage — next to their hotel.”

The first part of the claim is blatantly false. The second part is merely misleading.

It’s true that Randall Kaplan, Manning’s husband, was part of a hotel development group that stood to benefit from a $2 million incentive package approved by Greensboro City Council in 2014. But the project didn’t go forward, and the partners didn’t collect any of the money. The second part of the claim references a December 2017 vote by city council to approve $30 million to construct a parking deck to benefit the restarted hotel project. The ad cites a Feb. 1, 2018 Triad City Beat story to support its claim.

Viewers might infer that the City Beat story revealed that Manning was “part of a scheme” to obtain support from city council for the project. In fact, the story reported that nightclub owner Rocco Scarfone and two partners alleged in a lawsuit against the city that the developers and Manning as a spouse were “scheme participants” who “improperly influenced city officials” to support the project. The story also quoted a spokesperson for the developers as saying that the plaintiffs made “outrageous and unsupported claims,” adding that Manning “has never been involved with the hotel project and has never spoken to any city official on behalf of the hotel group.”

The ad omits the fact that the plaintiffs never presented any evidence to back up the claims in court, and voluntarily dismissed the suit in May after reaching an agreement with the city through a court-ordered mediator. Then, in August, Kaplan pledged that all profits from his stake in the hotel will go towards a fund to support local charities.

The attack ad was financed by America First Action Inc., a so-called super PAC established in April 2017 to back President Trump’s agenda. Sean Spicer, the former White House press secretary, joined the committee as a spokesperson and senior advisor in June. After four days, WXII 12 and Fox 8 WGHP stopped airing the ad, but the Budd campaign continued to run an ad that made similar claims. Politifact declared the Budd ad to be “false.”

The America First Action ad attacking Manning over the Greensboro parking deck is part of a slurry of campaign spending by outside groups designed to influence voters’ decisions in three competitive Congressional races in North Carolina, which also include the 9th District outside of Charlotte and the 2nd District in Wake County. The America First Action ad is distinguished not only for its loose relationship with the truth, but also for its cost. The $601,660 media buy stands as one of the highest expenditures of any independent election group in the three North Carolina Congressional races to date.

The Trump-aligned committee has raised $33.9 million since April 2017, and spent $26.8 million of it trying to sway races in favor of Republican candidates. The list of contributors, including casino owners, real-estate developers and energy-company owners, some of whom have spent $1 million or more to finance the committee, seem like unlikely watchdogs for the interests of Greensboro taxpayers. Topping the list is Geoffrey H. Palmer, a Los Angeles developer known for building heavily fortified multifamily housing for the wealthy, who contributed $4 million. Behind Palmer, Lorenzo J. Fertitta and Frank J. Fertitta, two brothers who respectively own Station Casinos and Red Rock Resorts in Las Vegas, each kicked in $1 million.

Second only to Republican Mark Harris in the 9th Congressional District, Manning has drawn more negative-advertising fire than any other candidate in the state’s three most competitive congressional races, as of press time.

To date, the 13th District race has attracted $3.9 million in spending to date by outside groups, including expenditures to oppose and support both candidates, while the 9th District has drawn $2.3 million and the 2nd District has drawn $1.8 million. Spending on negative advertising aimed at Manning totals $1.5 million, compared to $1.0 million spent against her Republican opponent, Ted Budd.

In the 2nd District, Republican George Holding has drawn more than $1 million in negative advertising from outside groups, and in the 9th District, Republican Mark Harris has drawn $1.5 million. In contrast, Democrat Dan McCready has drawn only $479,725 in negative advertising by outside groups in the 9th District, and Democrat Linda Coleman in the 2nd District has yet to attract any negative expenditures.

Despite setting the pace for spending by outside groups, the contest for the 13th Congressional District, which stretches west from Greensboro and High Point out to Iredell County, is not rated by political oddsmakers as the tightest among the three. The website FiftyThirtyEight.com rates the 13th District as “leans Republican,” giving a 2.7-point advantage to Budd. The website gives Republican Holding a higher advantage — 6.5 points — in the 2nd District, and rates the 9th District a “toss-up,” giving a 0.4-point advantage to Republican Harris.

Brandon Lenoir, a political-science and communications professor at High Point University, said that counter to conventional wisdom, negative advertising has been found to increase turnout. Because attack ads are memorable, he added, they provide voters with information, however inaccurate, that helps them make a decision. But negative ads typically either reinforce partisan leanings or demoralize the opposition, as opposed to influencing voters to switch sides.

“A lot of these types of elections are decided by those people who are weak partisans or unaffiliated,” Lenoir said. “Both sides are drawing blood. We’re talking campaign strategy here. You win elections clearly by getting the most votes. How you accomplish that is you mobilize your supporters and you discourage your opponents’ supporters. If you can get someone to stay home who supported my opponent, by default that’s a vote for me.”

Negative emotions often make a more lasting impression than positive messaging.

“In studying voter behavior and studying campaigns, emotions are very powerful, and the most powerful emotions are fear and anger,” Lenoir said. “It’s really hard to counter fear and anger with a positive message. Oftentimes what ends up happening in a campaign is if one side is attacking, the other side will cry foul and say, ‘The other side is dirty.’ They try to reframe it where it’s a reflection of the candidate doing the attacking rather than the deficiencies of the candidate being attacked.”

That’s the tack taken by the Manning campaign in response to the tandem attack by the Budd campaign and America First Action over the parking deck. In an ad called “Pulled” that launched on Oct. 26, a narrator says, “Ted Budd’s attacks are so dishonest, two local TV stations concluded they’re false and pulled them off the air.” The narrator continues, “But lying isn’t the only way Budd went Washington,” going on to accuse the candidate of taking trips funded by “special interests,” who received favorable legislation from Congress. The ad concludes, “Ted Budd’s gone Washington in the worst way.”

A comment from the Manning campaign for this story echoed the messaging in the ad.

“Congressman Budd and his allies are trying to buy this race and deceive voters with millions in outside, special interest spending on false attack ads,” Communications Director Hailey Barringer said.

Republican firewall

The conservative Club for Growth Action PAC has also spent money to oppose Manning, along with negative advertising against her Democratic counterpart, Dan McCready, in the 9th District. Club for Growth’s ad opposing Manning points out her past political contributions to Democratic House Leader Nancy Pelosi, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and other Democratic politicians in an effort to undercut the candidate’s pledge to vote against Pelosi for House speaker — part of a strategy to position herself as an independent who puts country before party. And on Oct. 24, the PAC unleashed a $435,000 ad campaign called “Dirty” focusing on McCready’s solar-energy business, and attempting to link campaign contributions to supposed tax breaks that the candidate received.

Club for Growth Action spent $498,988 in early 2016 to support Budd, helping the candidate break out of a crowded pack of 13 candidates in the Republican primary. And this year the PAC — whose top donors are Richard Uhlein ($5 million), owner of the Chicago-based shipping materials company Uline, and Jeff Yass ($2 million), managing director of the Philadelphia-based global trading firm Susquehanna International Group — has spent $502,364 to help Budd defend his seat.

David McIntosh, Club for Growth Action’s president, said North Carolina is one of the top two or three states for the organization’s members in importance for this election cycle. McIntosh said donors took note from the start that Democrats were targeting the 13th and 9th districts, and sought to counteract Democratic mobilization by supporting Budd and Harris, whom he called “strong economic conservatives.”

“If both of them win, you’ve got a larger group of fiscal conservatives in the House who will be able to do a better job of standing up to [Senate Majority Leader Chuck] Schumer and the other Democrats in the Senate,” McIntosh said. “If they were to lose, that’s key to Democrats winning control. A lot’s at stake in terms of who controls the House and sets the agenda.”

President Trump campaigns with Republican congressional candidates Ted Budd (right) and Mark Harris in Charlotte on Oct. 26. (screenshot)

Democrat air cover

Democratic-leaning groups are also leveraging large contributions from wealthy donors to undercut Republican opponents.

The Women Vote! super PAC has spent $675,025 over the past month on ads to oppose George Holding, the Republican candidate in the 2nd District, and $261,943 against Budd. LCV Victory Fund, a super PAC aligned with the League of Conservation Voters, has spent $374,335 on ads to oppose Budd. Women Vote!’s top donor is Dr. Karla Jurvetson ($5.4 million), a Silicon Valley physician; followed by Donald Sussman ($2 million), a Florida financier; and Michael Bloomberg ($1.5 million), the former mayor of New York City, and a prominent advocate for climate action and gun control. Bloomberg is also the top donor to the LCV Victory Fund, with a $2 million contribution. As a testament to the overlapping donor lists of Democrat-aligned super PACs, Sussman also contributed $3 million to the House Majority PAC, which has spent $402,751 on ads opposing Budd.

On Oct. 23, Women Vote! released an ad highlighting a 2012 campaign pledge by George Holding, the Republican candidate in the 2nd District, when he said, “I’m not going to take any money from special interest PACs.” A narrator cuts in, saying, “But what does Mr. Holding do? He goes to Washington and takes hundreds of thousands from the insurance industry and Big Pharma, and votes to raise our insurance premiums, increase costs for people with pre-existing conditions like diabetes and cancer, and charge older Americans five times more.

“George Holding, North Carolina can’t afford any more of your lies,” the narrator concludes.

The content of the ad closely follows an earlier spot released by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the campaign arm of the House Democrats. Campaign finance records on file with the Federal Election Commission indicate that $1.5 million of the $2.7 million raised by the Holding campaign in the current cycle comes from political action committees, or PACs, corroborating the claim made by the ads.

The largest share of negative advertising against Mark Harris, the Republican candidate in the 9th District, comes from a group called Patriot Majority USA. The website for the 501(c)4 nonprofit describes the group’s mission as “to protect American freedom, resist authoritarianism, and create jobs and economic opportunities, while restoring the American Dream for all families.” The Democrat-aligned group, which is legally considered an “independent expenditor,” has not disclosed its donors, despite spending $22.6 million in the current cycle to oppose and support candidates. On Aug. 3, the US District Court for the District of Columbia issued a ruling ordering such groups to report contributions. The guidance issued by the Federal Election Commission earlier this month requires independent expenditors to report all contributions going forward.

Patriot Majority USA has spent $944,060 over the past month on advertising to oppose Harris. The “Simple Protections” ad released by Patriot Majority USA on Oct. 1 assails Harris for supporting the tax cut signed into law by President Trump last December, arguing that it “could force a $500 billion cut to Medicare and Social Security.” Charges that the Republican tax cut will result in cuts to Medicare and Social Security, both popular entitlement programs, have been a common talking point among Democrats. FactCheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, deemed a similar claim in an attack ad against a Republican candidate in Pennsylvania to be misleading. The website reported: “While some lawmakers have talked about reducing the growth of those programs to lower deficits, there’s no plan being debated now, and GOP leaders say they don’t think it will be on the agenda this year.”

Last week, Vote Vets, a political action committee that works to elect veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, waded into the 9th District race. The PAC has endorsed Democrat McCready, who served in the Marine Corps. The ad opposing Republican Harris, a pastor, spells out the implications of the candidate’s position in favor of repealing the Affordable Care Act, arguing, “Mark Harris supports a healthcare plan that would drive up healthcare costs and gut coverage for the 300,000 people with preexisting conditions that live here.” The ad concludes, “Mark Harris — too big of a risk to represent us in Congress.”

The ad buy cost $574,597. Federal election reports reveal that much of the group’s $11.2 million fundraising total comes from other Democrat-aligned groups, including $514,425 from the House Majority PAC, and labor groups.

“With most negative ads, what they use is messaging that is red meat for their base,” Lenoir said. “The primary attack on Democrats is that they are elitist and out of touch. The primary attack on Republicans is that they are in bed with special interests, and they are self-serving and not responsive to their constituents.”

Mobilizing the youth vote

Not all expenditures by outside groups go towards negative advertising.

NextGen Climate Action Committee is the most generous outside group spending money to support Democrat candidates Manning and McCready. The super PAC has spent $106,897 on ads to support Manning and $76,209 to support McCready out of $51.8 million raised in this cycle. By far, the committee’s largest source of financial support — $41.3 million — comes from California billionaire Tom Steyer, best known for his campaign to impeach President Trump.

“We’re pushing the power of the youth vote, how the number of eligible voters 18-25 is the same as the Baby Boomers,” said Josette Ferguson, the state youth director for NextGen North Carolina.

One of the ads doesn’t even mention Manning or McCready. But the combination of messenger and target audience implicitly leans towards voting Democrat. The ad couples footage of a young, African-American man performing a pirouette with audio from a recent speech by former President Obama saying, “There are more eligible voters in your generation than in any other. Which means your generation has more power than anybody to change things.”

Other ads paid for by NextGen educate young people on what Congressional representatives do and positively contrast Manning against Budd, Ferguson said.

Ferguson said the committee employs six organizers working on college campuses to register voters, explain the purpose of voting and mobilize them to participate in early voting or vote on Nov. 6. The committee has spent $202,203 in North Carolina since early 2017, most of which has gone to cover organizers’ salaries.

Consistent with the demographic NextGen seeks to mobilize, the committee is focusing on digital platforms.

“Hulu and Pandora and Spotify,” Ferguson said. “Any place you can put a digital ad.”

Top spenders in North Carolina’s 13th, 9th and 2nd congressional districts

1. Club for Growth Action: $1,207,879 — pro-Budd (R-13), anti-McCready (D-09), anti-Manning (D-13)

2. Women Vote!: $1,151,993 — anti-Holding (R-02), anti-Budd (R-13), pro-Coleman (D-02)

3. Patriot Majority USA: $944,060 — anti-Harris (R-09)

4. America First Action: $904,152 — anti-Manning (D-13), pro-Budd (R-13)

5. Vote Vets: $574,597 — anti-Harris (R-09)

6. House Majority PAC: $443,110 — anti-Budd (R-13), pro-Manning (D-13)

7. Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee: $379,002 — anti-Holding (R-02)

8. LCV Victory Fund: $374,335 — anti-Budd (R-13)

9. National Republican Congressional Committee: $334,352 — anti-Manning (D-13)

10. American Foundations Committee Inc.: $188,613 — pro-Holding (R-02)

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