Progressives had really high hopes of winning across North Carolina in 2020. There were excellent candidates at every level. Wondering why so many progressive candidates lost? There were many factors, including the many very crowded Trump rallies around our state that really did energize his base to vote. Another factor was dirty election tricks that were pulled on some candidates that had been endorsed by the NC NOW PAC this year. Research exposed a 527 organization with national ties and deep pockets donating money that paid for mailers that tanked some progressive candidates in North Carolina. For two of our endorsed candidates in the Triad area, the mailers looked like they came from the candidates. Dark money paid for recycled lies against another candidate that the NC NOW PAC endorsed.
Terri LeGrand ran to represent Senate District 31, which was reconfigured in 2019 to go through all of Davie County and part of Forsyth County, see maps here. This race’s outcome was expected to greatly impact, if not determine, which party would control the NC Senate.
LeGrand is a Wake Forest University administrator who prioritizes fair redistricting, expanding Medicaid and investing in job-training programs. Her opponent was incumbent Joyce Krawiec, who is anti-abortion, against the Affordable Care Act and against the expansion of Medicaid. You may also remember Krawiec as a recipient of pounds and pounds of lards for a snide remark she made about women’s march marchers in 2017. Through the summer, LeGrand significantly outraised Krawiec as reported in the Triad City Beat on Sept 1.
Deceptive Mailers Appear To Be From Candidate
The deceptive mailers distorted LeGrand’s position on police reform and other topics. The first mailers are clearly described in the Triad City Beat article, “National GOP Outfit Mailer Distorting LeGrand’s Position Police Reform.” They used LeGrand’s campaign photo, color scheme and fonts, showing her with progressive national figures and saying she supported defunding the police. On the other side, the mailer references a local group working to remove the Confederate monument in Winston-Salem, and pushing for police reform. These are hot button issues that are opposed by many Republicans.
The mailers were created to look like they were sent from the LeGrand campaign, but it misrepresented the positions of LeGrand and others shown on it. The mailers were clearly labeled as being paid for by Citizens for a Better NC Senate, a Republican-aligned political action committee (PAC) in Raleigh.
The same Super-PAC, Citizens for a Better NC Senate, was on its fourth round of attacks by mid-July against Allen Wellons, a former 3 term state senator running to represent Johnston County in the state Senate. Those mailers were using debunked stories from 1996. A different Super-PAC attacked his opponent.
House Candidates Also Targeted
Candidate Dan Besse, who was running for NC House District 74, was targeted by Citizens for a Better NC House, another Republican-aligned political action committee (PAC) in Raleigh. Here are samples of one of the deceptive mailers targeting him.
Besse expressed particular frustration with the lie that he supported “defunding the police” since as a city council member he consistently supported improved pay and safety equipment for city police officers and firefighters. Besse received the endorsements of employee associations representing both groups. Several local media outlets reported this and debunked the 527-funded materials, but the deceptive ads continued unchecked. You can read more about Besse’s real views on his campaign website.
National to State Connection
The ultraconservative Good Government Coalition interfered in a number of races on behalf of vulnerable Republican incumbents – in North Carolina and elsewhere. WRAL explains the national to North Carolina connection in “Don’t Let Out Of State Money Buy Your Vote Says GOP Ad Funded By Out Of State Group,” 10/14/20, WRAL. WRAL reported “the North Carolina money flows through the Good Government Coalition, a 527 group under U.S. tax law with a business address at a UPS store in Springfield, Va.” WRAL charted the route of the money – the Good Government Coalition donates to a group called Citizens for a Better North Carolina. Citizens for a Better North Carolina distributed money to Citizens for a Better NC House and to Citizens for a Better NC Senate – the groups that targeted LeGrand and Besse. WRAL reported that those two groups spent millions on television ads this cycle. Ironically, one of the ads they ran closes with “don’t let out-of-state money buy your vote.”
Filling in another piece of the puzzle, WRAL reported that the direct-mail campaigns were managed by Martin & Blaine, a North Carolina consulting group run by Jim Blaine and Ray Martin, former staffers for Republican Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger.
What is a 527 organization, and where did it come from?
According to Wikipedia.com, “[a] 527 organization or 527 group is a type of U.S. tax-exempt organization organized under Section 527 of the U.S. Internal Revenue Code. A 527 organization is created primarily to influence the selection, nomination, election, appointment or defeat of candidates to federal, state or local public office.”
527 is the section of the tax code that applies to electioneering profits. A 527 organization does not fall under the regulation realm of the Federal Election Commission and is not subject to the same limits as FEC regulated organizations.
The Sunlight Foundation explains advantages of 527 organizations in their glossary of campaign finance in the U.S.,
“Although 527s cannot coordinate or contribute with federal candidates, these groups can and do give money directly to local candidates. (Though each state has distinct and specific guidelines that 527s must follow.) They have a number of other advantages, too: They disclose donor information to the IRS, not the FEC, which is slower to report; they can accept unlimited contributions; and they can help donors get around federal contribution limits, because McCutcheon v. FEC wiped out the limit on aggregate campaign contributions.”
That 2014 McCutcheon v. FEC decision removed aggregate limits for individual donors giving to candidates, political parties and PACs. More on this ruling at “McCutcheon v. FEC.” In the future, a strong amendment could overturn McCutcheon, Citizens United and other misguided rulings.
Impact of false ads
One of LeGrand’s campaign team members said she believes the mailers worked in a few ways. Many people were duped by the deceptive mailers, but also some people soured on Terri and other candidates targeted in this way due to confusion and mailer fatigue. She was surprised how many comments she heard from people questioning LeGrand’s positions, which are stated clearly on her campaign website.
The LeGrand campaign tried to refute some lies on the campaign website as well. But it is like Mark Twain said, “A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” Lies spread faster and farther now with the internet.
It took a while to figure out this was going on but there was no coordinated response. So far, these organizations made deceptive mailers and impacted elections with no ramifications.
527 Interference Tipped The Scales
The Supreme Court strikes again and this interference is some of the result – strong and well qualified progressive candidates got hit from left field with well funded attacks and lost. In this case, a 527 organization with national ties and deep pockets stepped in with powerful lies by funneling money through Raleigh to hurt strong progressive candidates around North Carolina. The Supreme Court decision allows 527 organizations to interfere all over the U.S.
Many people who knew of mailers thought strong responses should have been mounted during the election – they could have prevented some of the later attacks. If lawsuits had been filed after the election, they could deter future deception like this, or at least they could force the organizations to have to allocate more money for defense. As it went, there were no ramifications to the PACs or the 527 organizations for deceptive mailers. Future candidates need to know about these kinds of attacks, but it may be too difficult or expensive for them to respond while campaigning. A more coordinated response seems necessary. In the future, strong constitutional amendments could reign in Supreme Court rulings like McCutcheon that allow wealthy donors to contribute a potentially unlimited amount.
“McCutcheon v. FEC,” about 2014, OpenSecrets.Com
“McCutcheon v. FEC Explained,” 4/3/14, Youtube – cute video breaking down the McCutcheon v. FEC decision and impact.
“Lard being sent to office of NC senator who knocked women’s marchers,” 1/26/17, News and Observer.
“Dark Money Attack Ads Target Lisa Barnes, Allen Wellons In NC Senate Race,” 7/21/20, Southern Nash News.
“Democrats’ dream of retaking NC Senate runs through eastern Forsyth,” 9/1/20, Triad City Beat.
“National GOP outfit behind mailer distorting LeGrand’s position on police reform,” 9/12/20, Triad City Beat.
“NC NOW Announces 2020 General Election PAC endorsements,” 9/24/20, NC NOW Website.