The Republican takeover of North Carolina's state legislature in 2010 -- the first time since Reconstruction -- caught many by surprise, but perhaps none more than state senator John Snow. A three-term Democrat in the senate's western-most district in the mountains, Snow largely avoided controversy and often bucked his party; one group rated him as the state's second-most conservative senate Democrat. What's more, his Republican opponent Jim Davis -- a dentist and newcomer to state politics -- seemed like a long shot.
But then the money flooded in. Smelling an upset, the state Republican Party injected $321,600 [pdf] into Davis' challenge campaign. By mid-October, the Republican had raked in a total of $448,000 -- a staggering sum for the small district, and nearly double the $225,000 incumbent Snow had raised. (Final campaign finance reports will be released in January.)
If he was caught off guard by the GOP's big spending, Snow was completely blindsided by another onslaught: A barrage of attack ads and mailers from Civitas Action and Real Jobs NC, outside groups backed by conservative donor Art Pope. In lockstep with the Republican Party, the ostensibly non-partisan organizations poured over $205,000 into attacking Snow -- almost as much as Snow had raised for his entire campaign.
The money Republicans and aligned advocacy groups lavished on the Sen-50 race may well have tipped the balance: Two days after the election, Sen. Snow trailed his Republican challenger by just 187 votes.
Sen. Snow was not alone. According to a Facing South analysis of state and federal campaign records, in 2010 three independent groups backed by Art Pope -- Americans for Prosperity, Civitas Action and Real Jobs NC -- poured $1.1 million into 21 state legislative races targeted by Republicans. Art Pope and his family members injected another $232,000 into 19 of those races, for a total of over $1.3 million spent on the targeted state contests.
In most cases, the record-setting investments paid off. Republicans won 18 of the 21 races deluged by party and outside spending -- a stunning 86% win rate. Democrats decisively won just one contest; in two others -- senate districts 44 and 45 -- Democrats are clinging to leads of less than 100 votes.
A state-wide strategy
2010 was the year of big money in elections: The nonprofit Sunlight Foundation estimates over $454 million was shoveled into Congressional races by independent groups and party committees, shattering all earlier records for mid-term elections.
Less-noticed was an equally dramatic rise in state-level campaign dollars, which -- like the national spending spree -- benefited from loosened rules on corporate contributions due to the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision and gave a crucial money edge to Republicans.
In North Carolina, leading the charge were three groups linked to influential Republican benefactor and retail chain magnate Art Pope:
* Americans for Prosperity, a national group active in the tea party cause, spent $615,893 targeting nine state races -- over half of it going to attacks on Sen. Snow and fellow mountain Democrat Sen. Joe Sam Queen. Art Pope sits on the four-person board of AfP, and while the group's nonprofit status shields it from having to disclose its donors, tax records show that since 2004 Pope's family foundation has given $1.3 million to AfP's sister group, the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, which is allowed to share some resources with AfP.
* Civitas Action, making its first foray into North Carolina electioneering in 2010, poured another $199,131 on 11 N.C. races. State election reports reveal [pdf] Civitas Action raised $264,889.74 this election cycle: $190,000 from Variety Stores, Inc. -- Art Pope's family business -- and the remaining $74,889.24 from Americans for Prosperity. Civitas Action is a spin-off of the nonprofit Civitas Institute, which Facing South earlier revealed receives over 97% of its income from Pope's family foundation.
* Real Jobs NC, a new group which earned notoriety for its controversial and inaccurate attack ads, injected an additional into $284,490 into 19 races. As a so-called 527 group, Real Jobs NC reports all of its contributors, which included $200,000 from Pope's Variety Stores.
Together, the three groups focused their formidable resources on 21 state contests that were a top priority for Republicans, and which the state GOP also generously backed. Some Democrats were targeted by just one of three outside advocacy groups; 12 were attacked by two or more. Five unlucky Democrats, including Sen. Queen, were barraged by attacks from all three.
Pope family politics
Given Art Pope's influential role, perhaps it's unsurprising that the 21 races targeted by Americans for Prosperity, Civitas Action and Real Jobs NC -- as well as state Republicans -- also closely followed those targeted by Pope and other members of the Pope family in their personal campaign contributions.
A Facing South analysis of state campaign records for each Republican campaign through mid-October reveals that Art Pope, along with Pope family members Amanda, Joyce, Katherine, and Mrs. John W. Pope contributed a stunning $252,000 to Republicans on the list of targeted races. All but two of the 21 candidates -- Norman Sanderson in House District 3 and Bill Brawley from H-103 -- benefited from contributions from Pope family members.
Together, the money from Pope-backed groups and Pope family members going to the 21 targeted races came to over $1.3 million -- an average of more than $64,000 per race from just those four sources. (See chart above.)
That figure doesn't include contributions made after the last October filing period. It also doesn't include the steady stream of anti-Democratic and pro-Republican reports and analysis the flowed from the network of conservative nonprofits that Pope has spent millions backing in North Carolina.
As Facing South reported earlier, these groups -- which receive on average 89% of their income from Pope's family foundation -- were active participants in North Carolina tea party rallies that openly promoted Republican state candidates, despite legal prohibitions on such nonprofits engaging in electioneering and candidate advocacy.
A national plan
The record-smashing spending in North Carolina's 2010 state elections -- with a goal of capturing the state legislature for Republicans -- was no accident.
Mid-term anti-Democratic sentiment and the Citizens United decision helped set the stage. But Republicans had their eyes on a much bigger political prize in North Carolina: A chance to control redistricting -- the redrawing of the state's political lines that will begin after the 2010 Census numbers are released -- in a Democratic-trending state.
Nationally, the key group was the Republican State Leadership Committee. Chaired by top GOP operative Ed Gillespie, the group launched its REDMAP campaign in February 2010 with a specific aim: To use the committee's $30 million war chest to capture state legislatures and put Republicans in charge of shaping state and Congressional districts in ways favorable to the GOP in the long-term.
By determining who gets to vote and where, RSLC said the payoff would go far beyond this year's elections:
The party controlling [the redistricting] effort controls the drawing of the maps -- shaping the political landscape for the next 10 years.
North Carolina was at the top of the RSLC's target list. Their regional political director, Michael Luethy, worked for the N.C. Republican Party through December 2009 and is based in Raleigh.
The committee also emerged as the leading financial backer of Real Jobs NC: State election records show that in September and October, the RSLC sank an astonishing $1.15 million into the upstart group, 73% of its total income. (The $200,000 from Pope's Variety Stores was a distant second.)
Art Pope was clearly enthusiastic about the RSLC's plan. Not only did he join with them in creating Real Jobs NC as a front group to funnel Republican money to targeted N.C. races. According to OpenSecrets.org, Variety Stores also gave $36,500 to the RSLC in July 2010 to help make their dream of GOP state takeovers a reality.
In a November 3rd column, John Hood of the Pope-supported John Locke Foundation dismissed Democrats who "blame their loss of the General Assembly on independent expenditures, including those by groups receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars from Raleigh businessman Art Pope."
Money may not have been the only factor in the 2010 elections. But savvy businessmen like Art Pope and the corporate backers of the Republican State Leadership Committee clearly saw a value in making record-shattering contributions in states like North Carolina in 2010. They also expected a return on their investment, in the form of capturing state power.
Indeed, that's just what a plug on the RSLC's website promised their money could accomplish:
The RSLC is the largest caucus of Republican state leaders and the only
national organization whose mission is to elect down ballot, state-level
Republican office-holders ... In
February, the RSLC announced the creation of REDMAP,
which is on pace to raise record amounts dedicated to winning seats and
legislative majorities that will critically impact redistricting in
2011. [emphasis added]