Most of the talk about money in politics this year has been about the millions of dollars spent by outside groups to influence races in North Carolina. There’s been plenty of it, paying for attack ads on both sides of the races for governor and U.S. Senate.
But the latest round of state campaign finance reports reflect the escalation of another trend that is just as troubling and gives wealthy interests and the handful of power legislators they support tremendous influence over elections and the loyalty of the candidates who become members of the General Assembly.
Thanks to North Carolina’s redistricting process that largely protects incumbents, only a small number of seats in the House and Senate are seriously contested. This year, most eyes are on the Senate where Democrats hold a 31-19 advantage after winning several seats in Republican districts in 2006.
Republicans believe they have a chance to take over the Senate this year and while that seems unlikely, both parties are focusing their attention and financial resources on the races for eight seats, all currently controlled by Democrats.
One of them is currently held by Senator Julia Boseman from Wilmington, who is facing a spirited challenge from Republican attorney Michael Lee. Boseman is doing plenty of her own fundraising for the race, but the North Carolina Democratic Party has put $513,000 into the campaign so far, much more than Boseman herself could ever collect.
Not so coincidentally, Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight, who is unopposed for his Senate seat, has sent $1.06 million from his campaign coffers to the Democratic Party. It is not hard to figure out why Basnight is able to convince PACS and wealthy individuals to donate to his campaign.
He has been running the Senate since 1993 and has become the most powerful political figure in the state.
Contributions from individuals and PACs to a candidate are limited to $4,000, but Basnight can give as much as he wants to the Democratic Party.
More importantly, there are no limits on how much the political parties can give individual candidates either. That’s how the Democratic Party can send candidates in close races like Boseman half a million dollars. Basnight and his leadership team raise millions and it winds up in the hands of a few legislators in contested races.
Democratic Senators bristle at the suggestion, but it is impossible to believe that even the most independent lawmaker doesn’t think about that when Basnight needs their support to stay in power or asks them to get onboard with a controversial piece of legislation.
And it’s not just Basnight himself. His top lieutenants are playing the game enthusiastically too. Senate Majority Leader Tony Rand has sent the party $373,000 from his campaign. Senate Budget Chair Linda Garrou has sent $191,000, Finance Chair Dan Clodfelter $81,000.
Rank and file Senators are also expected to contribute and most do with donations to the party of $25,000 to $50,000. But Basnight’s leadership team rolls in the large amounts. It helps keep them in control.
The wealthy interests who write Basnight the checks know what they are doing. They could simply write bigger checks directly to the party, but then they might not come to the attention of Basnight and his team.
The same money shuffling happens in the House. Speaker Joe Hackney’s campaign has contributed $682,000 to the Democratic Party. The Republicans sometimes complain about the practice, but only because they aren’t as good as it.
Senator Minority Leader Phil Berger has shifted $181,000 to the state Republican Party. The party has given big chunks of money to candidates too, like $81,000 to Bettie Fennell, who is running against longtime Democratic Senator R.C. Soles in Columbus County.
Both parties get large, direct contributions from interest groups and individual supporters and that’s not likely to change. But some states do limit how much a political party can contribute to individual candidates, and the idea that makes sense for North Carolina.
The most obvious limit would be the same $4,000 that PACs and individuals face, but limiting party contributions to $10,000 or even $25,000 would at least stop the $500,000 transfers that make a mockery of campaign finance rules.
The problem is that the people currently running the system and benefitting from it are the ones who will have to change it. The North Carolina Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform is pushing for the limits and they are overdue.
There may not be a perfect way to reduce the influence of outside money on our legislative elections. But limiting party contributions would be a start, and would remove one direct lever used by people in power to stay there.