Raleigh, N.C. — An attack ad with racial overtones is part of a flood of money rushing into the North Carolina Supreme Court contest this week as early in-person voting opens across the state.
N.C. Families First began airing its "snake" ad this week in hopes of thwarting Supreme Court Justice Bob Edmunds' re-election bid against Superior Court Judge Michael Morgan. It cites an opinion he authored in a 2014 redistricting case that upheld state congressional districts, including one that used to snake its way from Charlotte to Greensboro.
Those districts were later overturned by a federal court as unconstitutional racial gerrymanders.
"And Justice Bob Edmunds? He wrote the decision supporting his party's discrimination," the ad intones.
Big spending by outside groups has become a regular feature of North Carolina high court campaigns in recent years, much to chagrin of candidates like Edmunds.
"I'm disappointed," Edmunds said Thursday night. "I think this represents a new all-time low in North Carolina judicial elections. I believe voters are going to be offended by this ad. I call on my opponent, Judge Morgan, to join me in denouncing it."
Morgan could not immediately be reached for comment.
Many voters don't know a lot about judicial candidates, whose races often don't get a lot of attention. So, relatively little spending can have a big impact on those campaigns.
Although court races are putatively nonpartisan, candidates' party affiliations are widely known and often influence who supports them. Edmunds, who is running to keep his seat, is a Republican. Morgan is a Democrat.
The current split on the state Supreme Court is 4-3, Republican to Democrat. A Morgan victory would flip that advantage.
Implying that Edmunds' decision is discriminatory against blacks is inflammatory in this election year. Many of the battles over state election laws have been fought based on their disparate impacts on minorities.
While Edmunds is white and Morgan is black, Edmunds' 2014 decision upheld a ruling from a unanimous three-judge panel, one of whom is an African-American. It's also noteworthy that the basic shape of the snaking district has existed for decades. As well, the district that was overturned by a federal court had been pre-cleared by the U.S. Justice Department under President Barack Obama as meeting the requirements of the federal Voting Rights Act.
N.C. Families First is a politically active nonprofit group aligned with Democratic candidates and causes. It has been the funnel for non-candidate campaign spending from the likes of the Democratic Governors Association and the National Education Association.
While candidates for court can raise and spend money like candidates for any other office, outside spenders can often raise and spend money in bigger chunks. Those outside ads can be positive as well as negative. A famous 2012 ad backing Justice Paul Newby became known nationally as the "banjo ad" due to its catchy jingle and hokey video narrative.
Edmunds, for example, is backed by a North Carolina Chamber ad that describes his background as being tough on crime.
Between the chamber and N.C. Families First, ad spending appears poised to reach into the hundreds of thousands of dollars in the Raleigh television market alone and could quickly move over the $1 million mark, according to those with access to private ad spending information.
"I think there's a distinction between the ones that advocate for a candidate and those ads that attack a candidate," Edmunds said.
He said he has no problem with positive ads. But he likened the N.C. Families First ad to one attacking Justice Robin Hudson in the 2014 campaign cycle for being soft on child molesters.
"I see no place for those kinds of ads," Edmunds said.