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Campaign finance reports show huge sums pouring into candidate coffers

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There ought to be a warning label on the Federal Election Commission website: Contents may cause headache, nausea and malaise.

As I pointed out last month, North Carolina's horribly inadequate campaign finance reporting system leaves us in the dark about who is financing state campaigns, including those for and against Amendment 1, until it's almost too late to react. As a result of the schedule, we won't know much until midway through what promises to be an exceptionally busy early voting season.

When we do get to see the reports, they'll have arrived so late that even if something smells, the chance that exposing it will sway a race is slim.

The way we track money in politics in North Carolina is antiquated, with many candidates still submitting reports on paper, and a fair number of those are scrawled by hand. The State Board of Elections, hamstrung by budget cuts, is years behind in converting paper reports to electronic spreadsheets. And the Legislature doesn't seem to be interested in funding agency efforts that could expedite the process; nor have lawmakers changed language in last year's budget that prevents the state from receiving millions in federal dollars for elections assistance.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court's 2010 ruling on Citizens United has allowed an unprecedented amount of corporate cash to influence elections and hundreds of ambiguously named independent groups to pour money into federal and state races.

Unlike the state reports, federal election reports are more timely. Late last week, April's quarterly reports trickled in to the FEC. The reports, which cover first-quarter fundraising and spending for federal candidates, federally registered political action committees and Super PACs, contained some eye-popping indications of the money already saturating campaigns in North Carolina.

Rep. Virginia Foxx, for instance, has about $1.5 million in her war chest to hold the GOP-friendly 5th Congressional District. Unless her race gets more competitive, much of that money will be parceled out to party committees and other candidates.

Of the challengers, Vernon Robinson, who this time has chosen to run in the 8th Congressional District, has again proven his fundraising prowess: $677,065 through March, about $300,000 more than his closest challenger in a five-way primary.

Most of the Super PAC funds will roll in during the fall elections, but as we've seen in other states, Super PACs are starting to creep into the primaries.

In North Carolina, the biggest beneficiary of outside money so far in the primary cycle is George Holding, a former U.S. District Attorney and staffer for Jesse Helms, who is running for the Republican-leaning 13th District. Holding's main competitor is Paul Coble, Helms' nephew and chair of the Wake County Board of Commissioners. You may have seen or heard ads sponsored by the American Foundations Committee blistering Coble. The AFC Super PAC has spent $366,715 this cycle, much of it in ads attacking Coble, who has complained that the committee is largely funded by Holding's family wealth, and that through it, his competitor is trying to buy the election.

Last Thursday, the AFC notified the FEC that it's planning to spend another $137,000 against Coble. The next day the committee's quarterly report showed 19 contributions totaling $514,250—80 percent of it from Holding family members.

This is a keystone election, as those immediately after a major redistricting usually are. Raising the stakes is the GOP strategy for maintaining control of the U.S. House: It depends on picking up seats in North Carolina. The Republican congressional redistricting strategy was to aim high and draw lines that could allow for as many as four seats to change from blue to red. To do that, they packed Democratic voters into districts that already heavily favored Democratic candidates.

If the lawsuits aimed at undoing the 2011 redistricting fail to substantially change the maps, that means the winners of this year's primaries have built-in margins entering the general election. And thanks to Super PACs, the primary winners will have plenty of outside money to help their cause. Given the power of incumbency and the promise of outside money, those who sail to victory on this year's wave of cash could be around for the rest of the decade or even longer.

There is one tiny bright spot: Earlier this year, the Supreme Court indicated it might review its Citizens United decision. In February, the court issued a stay in a case involving a ruling by Montana's highest court. That ruling upheld a state law banning corporate independent expenditures for state races. If the Supreme Court decides to accept the case, it would allow the justices another pass at Citizens United and another opportunity to test their underlying assumption that outside money doesn't corrupt the political process.

In a statement issued along with the stay, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer said as much: "Montana's experience, and experience elsewhere since this Court's decision in [Citizens United], make it exceedingly difficult to maintain that independent expenditures by corporations 'do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption,'" the statement says.

The justices went on to write that the Court now has an opportunity "to consider whether, in light of the huge sums currently deployed to buy candidates' allegiance, Citizens United should continue to hold sway."

In 2012, Super PACs will play a major role in deciding the outcome of federal, state and, in a growing number of places, local races. I'm worried about the new normal and its impact on this year's races. But mostly I'm worried about how it fundamentally changes our political system.

Our next generation of leaders could be faced with a system in which winning an election to high office can only be achieved if you possess unlimited personal funds or have the backing of a billionaire or two. If that isn't corruption, then what is?

This article appeared in print with the headline "They're rolling in it."

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