How Big Money Bought North Carolina for Extremists

by Miranda Blue and Calvin Sloan

In his 2010 majority opinion in Citizens United v. FEC, the case that opened the floodgates to limitless independent election spending by corporations and the wealthy, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that independent spending in elections “[does] not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.”

What has happened in the state of North Carolina since Justice Kennedy wrote those words illustrates just how misguided he was.

In the years since Citizens United, North Carolina has provided a clear example of what happens when a small number of corporate interests, allied with a far-right base, are allowed unbridled influence over elections. Since 2010, one North Carolina multimillionaire has marshaled the funds for a Republican takeover of the statehouse and governor’s mansion, leading to a slew of far-right legislation cutting benefits for working people, lowering teacher salaries, denying Medicaid coverage to half a million low-income people, defunding public education, eliminating protections against racial discrimination in the criminal justice system, gutting gun violence prevention efforts, attacking religious freedom and threatening women’s reproductive rights – all while cutting taxes for corporations and the wealthy.

This effort has gone hand in hand with a concerted attack on the very mechanisms of democracy in North Carolina. Since coming into power, Republicans in North Carolina have launched one of the country’s broadest attacks on voting rights, decimated the state’s campaign finance disclosure laws and contribution limits, heavily gerrymandered congressional districts, and politicized judicial elections.

These attacks strike at the foundation of democracy – the guarantee of one person, one vote – and serve as a cynical insurance policy for an agenda that serves the interests of those few who can afford influence in the new climate of pay-to-play elections.

A series of Supreme Court decisions deregulating money in politics, combined with the political marriage of the Tea Party and the corporate right, have created a climate where moneyed interests can hold sway over how a state holds its elections, who wins those elections and what those elected officials do once in office. North Carolina provides a case study of what can happen when the financial interests of a wealthy elite are allowed to drown out the voices of ordinary voters.

Buying North Carolina

North Carolina’s post-Citizens United Republican takeover has been largely financed by one man: retail magnate Arthur (Art) Pope.

When the Supreme Court handed down Citizens United in January 2010, states went to work to comply with the Court’s order vacating all federal and state bans on independent corporate expenditures in elections. In July of that year, North Carolina’s legislature passed the “Citizens United Response” bill, which was enacted just before the 2010 elections and opened the door to corporate election spending. Meanwhile, according to Bob Hall, Executive Director of Democracy North Carolina, Citizens United led to a cultural shift that “provided a green light to financial interests to feel blessed by the Supreme Court to spend in elections.” The result was that outside spending in North Carolina’s elections increased by 400 percent from 2006 to 2010. And nobody took greater advantage of the new rules than Art Pope.

The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer reported in 2011 that a few months after Citizens United, Pope received a visit from Republican strategist Ed Gillespie, who was formulating a plan to strategically take over statehouses prior to congressional redistricting. Pope contributed some money directly to candidates, but his real impact came from the establishment of a handful of outside groups that were newly freed from outside spending limits. These groups, like the 501c(4) organization “Civitas Action,” spent $2.2 million over 22 state legislative races, 18 of which they won. Three-quarters of all outside money in state races that year came from groups linked to Pope. In the post-Citizens United election landscape, one man almost single-handedly succeeded in flipping party control of the state legislature.

Mayer documents the many misleading attacks that Pope’s groups used to unseat moderate Democrats in the state legislature. One Democrat who narrowly lost his seat after a Pope-funded onslaught of attack ads said, “I don’t feel like I was defeated by the person I was running against. I was defeated by Art Pope and his cronies, who bought themselves a legislature.”

In 2012, Pope and his cronies doubled down. That year, as documented by the Institute for Southern Studies, 70 percent of the $14.5 million spent by outside groups on state-level races in North Carolina went to benefit Republicans. $8.1 million of that was spent to elect Republican governor Pat McCrory; more than half of that came from the national Republican Governors Association, which itself is partly financed by Pope corporations.

In two years, thanks to an unprecedented flood of outside spending by moneyed interests, Republicans took control of both houses of North Carolina’s legislature and its governor’s mansion. And the funders of the effort began to get what they paid for.

Tax Cuts for the Wealthy, Salary Cuts for Teachers

A few weeks before the newly-elected Gov. McCrory was to take office, he announced a notable appointment to his cabinet: Art Pope.

McCrory named Pope his head of budget policy, charged with writing the governor’s budget proposal. McCrory and Pope, with the cooperation of the newly right-wing legislature, went about cutting the safety net for struggling North Carolinians while heaping tax cuts on the wealthy and corporations. McCrory signed laws cutting off unemployment benefits for tens of thousands of people in the state, in what US Representative David Price (D-NC) called  “one of the most extreme and damaging acts I have seen in my time in government.” He cut pay for public school teachers. He refused expanded federal Medicaid funds under the Affordable Care Act, denying half a million low-income people access to health care coverage.

But there wasn’t bad news for everyone in North Carolina. On July 23, 2013 McCrory signed a new tax plan that dramatically lowered corporate income taxes and created a flat tax, which raised taxes on some families and small businesses while heaping the bulk of its benefits on the state’s wealthiest families. And, in one of his first orders of business upon taking office, McCrory bestowed salary hikes on members of his own cabinet.

An Extreme Agenda

While Pope and his fellow funders of North Carolina’s Republican takeover may have been mostly interested in creating fiscal policy that would benefit their own bank accounts, there was a powerful corollary to their efforts. In a solidly purple state that wavers between parties in presidential elections, Pope helped create one of the most far-right state legislatures in the country. And, thanks to Pope and his cronies’ efforts to elect McCrory, the legislature’s forays into Tea Party extremism go largely unchecked.

Since the 2010 Republican takeover of the North Carolina legislature, a number of extreme social policies have become law.

Undermining Democracy

The right-wing takeover of North Carolina has come with an insurance policy: a slew of laws taking power away from individual voters and putting it in the hands of campaign donors.

In July, the North Carolina legislature passed what election law expert Rick Hasen called “the most sweeping anti-voter law in at least decades.” The new law requires voters to present one of a narrow set of IDs in order to cast a ballot – IDs that 318,000 registered voters in the state don’t have. It cuts the number of early voting days and eliminates same-day voter registration during early voting, an option disproportionately used by African American voters. The bill invalidates ballots accidentally cast in the wrong precinct. It attacks the voting rights of young people, by eliminating pre-registration for 16- and 17-year olds, and of the elderly and disabled, by making it more difficult to establish satellite polling sites.

But the law doesn’t just make it harder for ordinary North Carolinians to vote. It also makes it much easier for moneyed interests to influence elections. The bill increased campaign contribution limits, repealed three public financing programs and – good news for Art Pope – weakened transparency requirements for outside spenders in elections.

Pope’s influence was particularly visible in the repeal of the popular program providing public financing for judicial elections. Until this year, North Carolina had for a decade maintained a nationally renowned clean elections program for judges, a voluntary public financing fund used by 80 percent of judicial candidates across the political spectrum. In June, after Republicans in the state legislature took aim at the program, a Republican legislator came up with a compromise to save the clean judicial elections. But Pope single-handedly convinced the legislator to drop his compromise proposal, and the pioneering public financing program died, leaving judicial elections vulnerable to partisan spending and the appearance of corruption.

Finally, Ed Gillespie’s original goal was achieved to great effect. In 2011, the newly elected GOP-dominated state legislature redrew the state’s congressional map to cram African-Americans and other largely Democratic constituencies into a small number of districts and increase the number of Republicans elected to Congress. It worked. In 2012, 50.6 percent of North Carolina voters cast their ballots for Democratic congressional candidates. But thanks to the legislature’s extreme partisan gerrymandering, the state’s U.S. House delegation ended up being 69 percent Republican — nine Republicans and only four Democrats.

Citizens Fight Back

North Carolina citizens, recognizing that their democracy has been ripped out of their hands, are fighting back. Since April, civil rights leaders have led weekly “Moral Mondays,” protests of thousands of people in front of the statehouse. So far, more than 900 people have been arrested in the protests, which organizers plan to continue in as the next election approaches.