Independent groups allied with Democrats signal big spending in NC legislative races this fall



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RALEIGH, North Carolina — Groups in the shadow of traditional campaigns are poised to once again attempt to influence North Carolina General Assembly races through ads and mailers bought with millions of dollars largely from companies and politically-minded organizations.

It's a strategy that helped Republicans take over the legislature in 2010 and expand their seat advantage in 2012. This year, donors and consultants aligned with Democrats are seeking to flex financial muscle to take back GOP gains.

Independent expenditure groups opposed to the Republican agenda at the legislature are sending signals they plan to spend large amounts this fall to help Democratic legislative candidates. The immediate goal is to eliminate veto-proof majorities Republicans currently hold. That means picking up four seats in the Senate and six in the House.

One group already has reserved more than $600,000 of television ad time in Raleigh, Durham and Fayetteville alone for the campaign's last month, according to TV station filings with the Federal Communications Commission. North Carolina Families First already sent out at least one mailer critical of a GOP House member.

Another group began running a television ad in the mountains last week blaming GOP Reps. Nathan Ramsey, Tim Moffitt and Michele Presnell for voting for tax cuts that benefited the wealthy while "our schools are starved for money and kids and teachers are left behind."

"Tell (them) to stop putting millionaires before our schools," says the ad from Aim Higher Now NC, part of North Carolina Citizens for Protecting Our Schools, which was active in the 2012 election.

Independent expenditure groups can receive unlimited donations from individuals, corporations and other political entities. In many cases, donor and expense information doesn't get released until the final two months of the fall campaign.

Candidates and political parties are barred from coordinating their activity with these groups. Sometimes described as super PACs, the groups are one of the many ingredients needed for success today in state or federal elections.

"The role of the independent expenditure groups is evolving, and every six months it looks slightly different," said Rep. Ruth Samuleson, R-Mecklenburg, the North Carolina House Republican Caucus campaign chairwoman. The groups, she added, "are a lot bigger player than they have been in the past."

Republicans benefited in 2010 from the conservative-leaning Real Jobs NC, which spent more than $1.5 million supporting Republican candidates and opposing Democrats with commercials and mailers. Its top donors included Republican State Leadership Committee and Variety Stores Inc., a company led by conservative activist Art Pope.

Two years later, Real Jobs spent roughly half of that amount, focusing on legislative candidates and the governor's race, supporting Pat McCrory. The group intends to get involved in legislative races again this fall if anticipated donations materialize, group spokesman Roger Knight said.

Liberal-leaning groups aligned with Democrats created similar independent groups in 2010 and 2012, but it hasn't equated to ballot box success.

"The Democrats are playing catch-up with the state Republicans when it comes to independent expenditure" campaigns, said Brad Crone, a longtime Democratic consultant.

N.C. Citizens for Progress, which spent $2.6 million in 2012 on ads criticizing McCrory, was renamed North Carolina Families First last month, according to state records. Jay Reiff, a longtime Democratic consultant for Gov. Mike Easley, is listed as the group's president.

Michael Weisel, general counsel and treasurer for Families First and N.C. Citizens for Protecting Our Schools, declined to discuss the groups' plans this fall but said they will comply with federal and state disclosure requirements.

Environmental groups this past spring already ran TV ads criticizing several GOP lawmakers for votes on fracking and landfills. With U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan framing her re-election bid as a referendum on the legislature and Republican challenger House Speaker Thom Tillis, people who support Democrats have more reasons for optimism.

"There are an increasing number of North Carolina citizens that are very concerned about the future and the direction of this state and the legsialtive priorities and policies that the current North Carolina General Assembly has," Weisel said.

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