Capital Goods: March 2013

Dems' sum isn't very filling

It is hardly news that money follows power in politics. Interest groups and companies with business before governors and state legislators want access and influence, and the primary means to that is through campaign contributions.

With Republicans now holding power in North Carolina, the money is increasingly flowing their way, which was made quite clear when campaign-finance reports for last fall’s election were filed in January.

The numbers are staggering. Gov. Pat McCrory’s fundraising advantage over Democrat Walter Dalton was almost 3-to-1. His campaign committee raised $12.3 million, compared with the $4.3 million Dalton’s put up. The state Republican Party raised nearly twice what the state Democratic Party did. By Dec. 31, the GOP pulled in $9.3 million to the Democrats’ $4.7 million. Some of it went to the governor’s race, but a portion raised by legislative leaders was targeted to competitive swing districts that determine the balance of power in the General Assembly. Spending by outside groups, a growing cache of campaign cash, was closer to equal, but Republicans still enjoyed an advantage.

Given that, McCrory’s easy win over Dalton and the Republicans’ lopsided majorities in the House and Senate come as no surprise. Sure, personas, policy prescriptions and ideologies play big roles in elections. But when one candidate’s commercials keep popping up on TV with the other’s rarely aired or one sends 15 separate mailings to the other’s three, money makes a difference. In the aftermath of their November butt-kicking, Tar Heel Democrats rolled out a long list of excuses. They talked about the new legislative district lines Republicans drew (and that Democrats continue to challenge in court). They talked about Gov. Beverly Perdue’s unexpected decision not to seek a second term and Dalton’s late entry in the race. Some pointed to the disarray at party headquarters, with the former state chairman, dealing with a sexual-harassment scandal, seeming more intent on protecting his job than winning elections. But all that was secondary to the overriding issue Democrats faced: They couldn’t scare up enough money to run competitive races.

A major portion of what they did raise came from two groups of traditional supporters — teachers and trial lawyers. As business interests continue to shift their support to Republicans, urban liberals are replacing the moderate, pro-business Democrats who traditionally were the big fundraisers. Among the party’s most successful money magnets in the legislature are two Raleigh lawyers. Sen. Josh Stein is a former consumer-protection chief in the state attorney general’s office, and Rep. Deborah Ross once ran the state branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. He funneled $288,185 to other candidates and the state party to elect Democrats to Senate seats; she sent $123,410 to support fellow Democrats. If money follows power, it also creates clout. Legislators with fundraising prowess typically end up with more influence in their caucuses. As liberals become their party’s power base, will that scare away business interests and widen the Democrats’ fundraising disadvantage?

They can hope that Republicans overplay their hand, with policies pandering to the far right that disenchant mainstream voters. They’ve tried to make that case, portraying GOP legislators who passed gun-rights laws and controversial abortion restrictions in their first two years of controlling the General Assembly as being more concerned about social issues than with the economy and jobs. Without a veto-wielding Democratic governor, Republicans will have more opportunities to run afoul of the mainstream going forward. GOP plans to rework the state’s tax structure and regulatory framework might be minefields for more than a few political careers.

Still, that’s not much of a plan. And two years of Republican control of the legislature didn’t result in a voter rebellion last fall. To close their 34-seat disadvantage in the House and 16-seat gap in the Senate, Democrats need money. That requires policy prescriptions that contrast with GOP proposals and dovetail with campaign strategies that allow them to extend their fundraising reach beyond teacher and trial-lawyer groups.

Scott Mooneyham is editor of The Insider, www.ncinsider.com. Email him at smooneyh@ncinsider.com..