Special-interest money en route to WNC congressional candidates

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PACs invested most money in incumbent McHenry so far

With the primary behind us – and most of November’s congressional candidates decided – federal campaign finance reports reveal how special-interest groups have already begun placing bets on who will be the region’s next representatives in Washington.

Depending on where you live in Western North Carolina, candidates from North Carolina’s 10th and 11th Congressional Districts are vying for your vote, buoyed by large and small donations. Primary among those supporters are political action committees, best known as PACs – interest groups all along the political spectrum created to elect or defeat candidates or promote certain political philosophies around topics such as abortion or education reform.

The groups can offer a major boost to a candidate, but they also raise concerns among voters about whether they also buy preferential access once their candidate is elected.

Political observers say the place PAC money is most likely to flow in WNC is, perhaps unsurprisingly, into the 11th District.

Recently redrawn by the state’s Republican leadership and now represented by U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, a Democrat, the district is likely to be particularly attractive to PAC money this time, says Bill Sabo, professor of political science at UNC Asheville.

“Money is far more likely to make a difference in the 11th District, so lots of organizations are going to put their money into the better bet,” he said. “And the 11th District is a better bet because there is no incumbent. Democrats desperately want to hold onto (that seat).

“It’s a chance to get in on the ground floor, and back a winner.”

Redistricting effectively put much of Democrat-leaning Asheville into the more conservative 10th District to the east, now represented by U.S. Rep. Patrick McHenry, a Republican.

And more PAC dollars will likely flow into WNC, Sabo and others agree, especially as November draws closer.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if the total cost (to win) the 11th District is $2.5 to $3 million,” Sabo said. “The total cost of the 10th District will be half that, at best – because of the presence of an incumbent.”

In comparison, consider that the Shuler campaign spent $1.3 million in winning District 11 in 2010. PAC money played a significant role for Shuler in that race, with half of his total campaign chest coming from PACs.

But as of now – with the general election months away – PACS have yet to funnel that amount of money into the 10th and 11th district campaigns, according to most recent financial disclosures at the Federal Election Commission.

And it’s the 10th District that’s garnered the most early support. Total PAC receipts to candidates there – more than $421,000 – are more than triple those for District 11, as of Friday, April 18.

Most of the 10th District PAC money – 99 percent – has flowed to McHenry, an incumbent, who has enjoyed the support of PACs with some fairly deep pockets.

This snapshot of federal campaign information shows the breakdown of contributions going to District 10 congressional candidates, as of April 18. The green portion represents individual contributions. The brown portions represents PAC contributions. Data and graphic from the Federal Election Commission.

In District 11, the majority of PAC dollars have gone to Democrat candidate Hayden Rogers, who has received about one-third of his total funding from PACs.

In the 11th Congressional District, the Democratic candidate, Hayden Rogers, has raised $108,500 in PAC dollars, which is represented here in brown. Individual contributions comprise more than half his campaign's coffers. Data and graphic from the Federal Election Commission.

Meanwhile, PACs have shown mixed interest in the two Republican candidates now facing a runoff July 17 – Mark Meadows and Vance Patterson. Meadows had raised just more than $9,000 in PAC contributions, according to the Federal Election Commission. Patterson, meanwhile, had received none.

District 11's Republican candidate has yet to be decided, with a runoff between mark Meadows and Vance Patterson set for July 17. This shows how much PAC, individual, party and other contributions the two have received, as of April 18. Data and graphic from the Federal Election Commission.

Compare that to what individuals have contributed so far in the campaigns, and there’s a familiar pattern, Sabo said.

In general, he said, challengers typically rely on numerous, small contributions from individuals – mostly under $250 each. Incumbents, in contrast, have already proven they can win an election, he said, and so they represent “a better investment” for a PAC heading into the general election in November.

Already, questions about money’s influence in WNC congressional elections have come up during the final push toward the primary, specifically in District 11 by now-defeated Democratic candidate Cecil Bothwell, whose campaign issued an e-mail asking, “Who will own your next Congressperson?”

“Our government should not be for sale to the highest bidder,” Bothwell’s statement read, “particularly when those high bidders bring such misery to working people’s lives.”

Bothwell claimed, then, that some contributors to the Rogers campaign flowed from the payday-loan industry. Rogers went on to win this month’s primary. Rogers did not return requests for comment from Carolina Public Press.

Who’s in?

PAC interest in North Carolina’s 11th District could be due in part to the prospect that WNC voters may leave a real mark on the national political landscape this year, Sabo and others said.

That’s because races involving open seats, like the one in District 11, stand to make a big impact on the makeup of the next U.S. Congress.

The Washington Post lists North Carolina as one of the states that could determine whether Democrats retake the U.S. House in 2013 – or if Republicans will hold their majority moving forward. North Carolina was ranked 8th on the list of states that will most influence that outcome, according to The Post.

This means that interest groups from many quarters are likely to make investments here in Western North Carolina. And the fiscal draw may be underway already.

In the 11th District, Rogers is unique among non-incumbents in WNC for having raised one-third of his campaign chest from PACs – something he’d actually accomplished before the primary, the point where many PACs start making their investments in earnest, said Sabo.

Challengers don’t generally raise much money from PACs until after the primaries, Sabo said.

“They have to demonstrate their vote-getting ability in this district, and then the money will start flowing in,” he said.

McHenry better fits the usual pattern, according to Sabo, as the incumbent has already received over half his re-election funding from PACs. What’s more, at the time of the primary he had raised more than twice the total amount of the other six candidates combined.

Who’s buying?

Among those placing their bets on Rogers for the 11th District are such mainstream groups as AMERIPAC: The Fund for a Greater America, whose contributors include major corporations like Walmart and AT&T, along with public icons like the National Education Association and the National Association of Broadcasters.

Rogers has also received the maximum contribution of $10,000 from the Blue Dog PAC, a right-leaning, business-oriented group of Democrats, as well as the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

Similarly, a look at McHenry’s PAC support in the 10th District reveals organizations with deep pockets – and, as with Rogers, many based outside of North Carolina.

For instance, the Independent Insurance Agents of America and the American Bankers Association both gave McHenry’s campaign the $10,000 maximum. Campaign finance laws limits ordinary PAC contributions to $5,000 per election (two elections, the primary plus the general election in the fall, provides the total there). A PAC called Every Republican Is Crucial, affiliated with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), also gave McHenry the maximum gift allowed.

Meanwhile, the progressive PAC known as Democracy for America, or DFA, recently endorsed Patsy Keever. And while Keever has not yet received a large influx of PAC money thus far, DFA endorsement from a recent primary election provides a ready example of what PACs can do for a strong candidate, Sabo said.

In 2010, DFA launched its so-called “Primaries Matter” campaign, with the goal of electing “better Democrats” into office. In Western North Carolina that year, DFA endorsed and worked to support challenger Elaine Marshall in the Democratic primary runoff for U.S. Senate. Marshall was the subject of a widespread DFA email campaign. On Election Day, Marshall beat fellow Democrat Cal Cunningham, in spite of his endorsement by the national Democratic Party leadership.

A PAC cannot work magic and turn a dud into a winner, Sabo said, “but they can give a boost to a well-qualified challenger” — enough to push them over the top.

Sabo summed it up with evidence from elections going back to 1946.

“How much money an incumbent spends is irrelevant,” he said. “How much money the challenger spends is critical. A challenger who spends around $850,000 has a 3-in-10 chance of defeating the incumbent. And when you figure that most challengers have about a 1 in 20 chance, you can see how the money matters.”


Learn more

To find out more about WNC congressional candidates and the money they are raising, visit the Federal Election Commission.

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About the Author

Susan Andrew

Susan Andrew is contributing reporter for Carolina Public Press. Contact her at waterthrush@bellsouth.net.

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