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News & Observer (Editorial) - Super PAC ads distort NC Senate race

February 17, 2014
In The News

By Editorial Board

This year’s race between Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan and whomever North Carolina Republicans nominate is expected to be the most expensive Senate contest in the nation.

The cost refers to the millions of dollars that will be spent as each side bombards North Carolinians with TV ads declaring one candidate’s virtues and the opponent’s scary positions on issues.

The race also seems likely to involve a high price in ways other than dollars. It will take a toll on the truth, on the democratic process, on the dignity of the candidates and ultimately on the faith of voters that they – not donors – decide who represents them in Washington.

All major campaigns have elements of overkill and exaggeration, but those elements are being hugely inflated by the rise of super PACS and the kind of campaigns they create.

Candidate committees and other traditional political action committee (PACs) can collect a maximum of $2,600 from individual donors. Those donors must be disclosed, and the ads they support must be backed by the candidate. Super PACs operate without the limit and the transparency. And, thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision of four years ago, super PAC donors can include corporations and unions.

Many public corporations have been shy about spending openly on elections because of possible consumer backlash. But corporations can funnel money to “dark money” groups that don’t disclose their donors and can give unlimited amounts to influence an election.

The depressing effect of the unlimited spending is already on display in North Carolina. The super PAC Americans for Prosperity, a group funded largely by oil industry billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, is spending $7 million on misleading ads focused on Hagan and her support of the Affordable Care Act.

Now a super PAC seeking to hold Hagan’s Democratic seat – Patriot Majority USA – has launched ads attacking Hagan’s likely opponent, state House Speaker Thom Tillis. The ads claim that Tillis wants to “end Medicare as we know it” and that he is against requiring insurance companies to provide coverage to people with pre-existing conditions.

The ads are technically accurate but also a distortion. Tillis favors changes in Medicare funding but not an end to the program. And he generally favors a GOP alternative to the ACA that would cover some people with pre-existing conditions through state-run, high-risk pools.

The Hagan campaign is well-funded but holding its fire until closer to the election. Under the fig-leaf rules of federal election law, Patriot Majority USA as a super PAC can’t coordinate with a candidate, but it has nonetheless stepped in to counter early damage to Hagan caused by the Americans for Prosperity barrage.

It’s a natural response for those who want to keep Hagan in office – and the U.S. Senate in Democratic control – to respond to the Americans for Prosperity ads by attacking Hagan’s likely opponent. But it’s also a response that fuels a damaging trend in campaigns and ultimately in governance as candidates become more beholden to large and anonymous donors with equally hidden agendas.

One solution is the Empowering Citizens Act sponsored by House Democrats David Price of North Carolina and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland. The act proposes limits on super PAC spending on specific candidates and a public match for small individual contributions.

In response to the Americans for Prosperity ads, Hagan said on an MSNBC show recently, “The people in North Carolina are not going to let the billionaire Koch brothers buy this seat.” If she believes that, she would do well to say that the seat is also not for sale to the invisible donors behind super PACS that favor her. She will raise her own money, run her own ads and win and lose on her own terms.

Such a position would depart from the escalation that’s happening post-Citizens United, but it might win Hagan more support from propaganda-weary North Carolinians than any ad a super PAC could put out.