Cash propels GOP wins|Editor’s note: This concludes an occasional series on campaign finance.

Published 4:44 am Thursday, November 11, 2010

Staff Writer

A coalition of conservative groups, supplied partly by money from business allies, helped Republicans gain majorities in the North Carolina General Assembly, according to a report from the nonprofit Institute for Southern Studies in Durham.
Among candidates reaping the benefits of these groups’ investments was Bill Cook.
Cook is a first-time Republican office-seeker and representative-elect. He will succeed four-term state Rep. Arthur Williams, D-Beaufort, in the House.
Early in the campaign, Williams appeared heavily favored to win based on past election results and the incumbent’s fundraising advantage, but some of Williams’ supporters quietly say conservative direct-advertising campaigns, paid for by the GOP-aligned coalition, turned the tide for Cook.
According to the institute’s report, three of these Republican-tied organizations — two of which sent out mailers that reportedly worked in Cook’s favor — were backed by conservative retail executive and former state representative Art Pope.
The three entities supported by Pope, Americans for Prosperity, Civitas Action and Real Jobs N.C., “poured $2 million into 22 targeted N.C. statehouse races,” reads a news release from the institute.
The institute labeled this “record-shattering campaign spending.”
“These ostensibly nonpartisan groups backed by Art Pope were remarkably successful in aligning their spending with Republicans at the state and national level,” Chris Kromm, director of the institute, was quoted as saying in the release. “In close races, Democrats were deluged by money sources working in concert — a key factor in the GOP’s successful bid to control the state legislature.”
Kromm couldn’t be reached for additional comment Wednesday.
Civitas Action and Americans for Prosperity distributed mailers in Williams’ District 6, which takes in all of Beaufort County and eight precincts in northeast Pitt County.
Three of the mailers listed AFP and Variety Stores as sponsors. Pope is president and vice chairman of Variety Wholesalers, according to
Pope and three members of his family also made personal contributions to candidates, giving Cook’s campaign committee $16,000 in the days leading up to the Nov. 2 general election.
“I think Mr. Cook will bring good experience to the Legislature,” Pope told the Daily News in September, adding, “I’m not simply betting on a horse race. I’m giving contributions to good candidates that I think will make good legislators.”
Well into the campaign, Cook continued to trail Williams in fundraising. In mid-July, it was reported that Williams still had $121,550 cash on hand while Cook had more than $8,000.
As of Oct. 21, Cook’s campaign listed $85,608.55 in total receipts, with $40,319.33 of that coming from individual contributors and $35,834.50 coming from political party committees.
When asked to account for the success of Cook, a relative unknown in politics, some local political observers credited the onslaught of outside-funded mailers, along with the Republican wave that pushed the GOP to a legislative majority.
“Folks who can’t attract funding are usually not folks who are going to get elected, and there’s a reason for that,” Cook told the Daily News in October.
Cook was in a meeting and unavailable for additional comment Wednesday.
Dallas Woodhouse, state director of Americans for Prosperity, said AFP doesn’t engage in “express advocacy,” meaning it doesn’t ask people to vote for a particular candidate.
“It’s important to know that, yes, there was a surge in some (corporation) funds that went into independent expenditures that either advertised against incumbents or helped educate citizens against incumbents,” Woodhouse commented.
This doesn’t mean that large corporations like Wal-Mart are legally permitted to send checks directly to candidates, Woodhouse said.
Woodhouse called AFP’s mailers a public service.
“I do think you will see a continuation of individual expenditures, but we might see some deregulation on the campaign finance side as far as the candidates go,” he added.
Woodhouse indicated he was surprised to learn he had an unlikely ally on the deregulation of campaign finance: state Sen. Marc Basnight, D-Dare, who, in an October interview came out in favor of unlimited campaign contributions, with full disclosure of the donors.
Basnight was re-elected, but his party lost control of the Senate, bringing an end to his record-breaking run as president pro tempore of that body.
“No government intrusion or law or regulation,” Basnight said in October. “You can give any amount you want. You would think I would not like that, but I am believing now we need a change in North Carolina.”
The senator said this as he, too, was being targeted in mailers like the ones that helped Cook.