Last week, the newly formed political action committee Carolinians for Freedom launched a website attacking Democratic attorney general candidate Josh Stein for, among other things, going to Harvard and working for John Edwards.
Visitors to extremeharvardradical.com are greeted by a crudely Photoshopped image of Stein in a bright, flowery shirt set atop a tie-dye background. "Extreme Harvard Radical Josh Stein wants to bring his Harvard values to North Carolina," the text reads. "After leaving Harvard, Stein came to North Carolina to be the top advisor for disgraced former Senator John Edwards. Then, as a member of the State Senate, Stein voted to raise our taxes. He even advocated for crazy ideas like banning grocery bags."
(Quick fact check: Stein did go to Harvard. He also worked for Edwards, though he left before Edwards ran for president or his philandering became known. And in 2009, then-state senator Stein sponsored legislation to ban plastic bags in three Outer Banks counties; hardly controversial, it passed the Senate 44–2. The logic behind the That '70s Show theme remains unclear.)
This website, however, is just the tip of the spear. Between now and Election Day, Carolinians for Freedom will flood North Carolina's airwaves with millions of dollars in ads, according to advertising reservations documented in Federal Communications Commission records. Which raises the question: Who are Carolinians for Freedom?
Put simply, the PAC is a front group for the Republican Attorneys General Association, which is backing state Senator Buck Newton.
According to N.C. State Board of Elections records, CFF organized on June 17; it got off to a rocky start with campaign-finance regulators. The NCSBE fined CFF twice on August 16—once for $500 and once for $150—because the PAC didn't submit two reports on time. (CFF has since appealed those fines.) Those reports show no contributions or expenditures; in the weeks after the PAC organized, however, it reserved at least $2.4 million in TV ad time, including more than $600,000 on WBTV-Charlotte and $400,000 on WRAL.
By design, the folksy-sounding name "Carolinians for Freedom" obscures Newton's true backers, a national partisan organization funded by big corporations and mega-donors. And when your television is deluged with anti-Stein ads this fall, they'll likely say, "Paid for by Carolinians for Freedom," though the PAC has few ties to this state.
Organizations like CFF, says Josh Stewart of the watchdog group Sunlight Foundation, "are not transparent and make spending more opaque."
"It's wrong," adds Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy NC. "It undermines the ability to understand who's financing elections and who's trying to control the information in elections, and it circumvents the disclosure requirements that candidates have to live by where they're filing—under their own name—the money that they raise and spend."
There's nothing illegal about this arrangement, experts say. Nor is it unprecedented or practiced only by Republicans. In 2015, the Bluegrass Committee for Justice and Fairness, an arm of the Democratic Attorneys General Association, received $352,000 from the DAGA to help Kentucky Democrat Andy Beshear. (The DAGA declined to comment for this story, but there's no indication that the group has set up a separate PAC to help Stein.)
In fact, nationwide, this is increasingly commonplace, Stewart says—"especially with how easy it is to set up a PAC or a super PAC for national groups to funnel money into these 'astroturf' PACs. They're named, like, 'Texans for a Better Tomorrow,' but the money's really coming from a partisan organization that is usually located in D.C. If they feel their Republican brand is harmful, they'll set up another organization to act as a front group to mask the money."
The RAGA's IRS filings show that, in the second quarter of 2016, the group brought in $3.6 million from fewer than 170 donors. Just five of them were from North Carolina: Raleigh Republican Bob Luddy ($15,000), Lowe's ($15,000, the same amount it donated to the DAGA), ACN Opportunity ($15,000), Time Investment Company ($5,000), and Bank of America ($25,000).
"That's why these sorts of PACs that act as a front for some of these groups are so dangerous," Stewart says. "They don't have to worry about their reputation being tarnished, because they're not interested in a sort of long-term political discourse in the state. They just want to get involved in the race and then leave."
While the RAGA acknowledges its connection to CFF and that it is the PAC's primary funder—the RAGA will likely end up spending more to elect Newton than Newton will—you'd be hard-pressed to know that from CFF's public disclosures. (The giveaway is that the two organizations share a Washington, D.C., address, and CFF's treasurer is the RAGA's chief financial officer.) Nowhere on extremeharvardradical.com do the words "Republican Attorneys General Association" appear.
In addition, the RAGA's expenditures have yet to show up in CFF's campaign finance disclosures; before the most recent disclosure report, which runs through June 30, "we had no activity," says RAGA spokesman Jordan Russell. The website was built after June 30; the TV ad buys are only reservations, not purchases. These expenditures will appear on a disclosure report due October 31—eight days before the election.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The Shadow Campaign"