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Tuesday, October 27, 2015

North Carolina's dark money trail goes national

Posted by on Tue, Oct 27, 2015 at 12:49 PM

click to enlarge Thom Tillis, former N.C. Speaker of the House, now a United States senator. - N.C. GENERAL ASSEMBLY
  • N.C. General Assembly
  • Thom Tillis, former N.C. Speaker of the House, now a United States senator.
Whenever North Carolina politics winds up in the New York Times, it's a good thing, right? Ugh.

Here's a fascinating read in the op-ed pages of today's Times. The piece, written by the Center for Responsive Politics' Robert Maguire, questions how the IRS will respond to a recent tax filing from Carolina Rising, a 501(c)(4) social welfare organization that is not supposed to spend a majority of their cash on political activity and aren't allowed to function to benefit one candidate or group.

Carolina Rising, however, did spend $4.7 million on ads in 2014, the filing shows, most praising the work of then N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis, who was running for the U.S. Senate against Democrat Kay Hagan. Tillis, of course, won.

From the op-ed:

"Carolina Rising appears to have broken both rules. Within five months of being formed, and just three months before the general election, Carolina Rising kicked off an onslaught of television ads applauding Mr. Tillis for his work on education and health care in North Carolina. The ads never asked viewers to vote for Mr. Tillis.



Perhaps this framing was meant to allow the group to claim that it was talking about issues, rather than supporting the candidate outright. But the firm buying the ads on behalf of Carolina Rising, Crossroads Media, repeatedly described the 'issue' in its ads as some variation of being pro-Thom Tillis. In at least one contract, the stated issue was 'supporting Thom Tillis, senatorial candidate for N.C. (R) - election on 11/4/14.'" 

Dallas Woodhouse, a longtime GOP activist, ran Carolina Rising. Here he is, on Election Night, celebrating Tillis' triumph at the campaign's victory party, wearing a Tillis hat. As Maguire points out, when asked about his group spending "a whole lot of money to get this man elected," Woodhouse responds, "$4.7 million. We did it."

It should be noted that, while the advertisements purchased by Carolina Rising did not explicitly state that one should vote for Tillis, they did tout his legislative accomplishments. Also key here, as Maguire notes, such organizations as Carolina Rising are not required to identify their donors, but we do know that 98.7 percent of the group's revenue came from a single source.

This kind of "dark money" spending is on the rise. The report notes that election spending by groups who don't disclose their donors already totals $4.9 million in the 2016 presidential election, more than ten times the amount spent at this point in the 2012 election.

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