Raleigh, N.C. — Well, that was expensive.
The 2014 U.S. Senate campaign in North Carolina led the nation in money-fueled sound and fury and, in many ways, set the stage for the 2016, when a trio of hugely important statewide races will headline the ballot.
Throughout this election, @NCCapitol has been tracking the money spent on elections for two important reasons. It was nearly impossible to escape, whether you were listening to drive-time radio, opening your mailbox or tuning in a network television broadcast. All that spending also raises questions about the return on investment – what exactly do donors get for chipping in anywhere from a few thousand to a few million dollars to help elect a candidate?
The reason for all that spending is obvious. State House Speaker Thom Tillis' margin of victory was less than 2 percentage points over U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan. The roughly 50,000 voters who gave Tillis the edge wouldn't be enough to fill the seats at the Charlotte Panthers' Bank of America Stadium.
North Carolina handed President Barack Obama his narrowest victory in 2008 and his slimmest loss in 2012. No one party holds a majority of voter registration, and the demographics of the state are shifting as migrants from other states push North Carolina's population over 10 million.
In short, North Carolina is a swing state for statewide elections, up for grabs to whichever party and candidates figure out how to build a better political mousetrap.
As ever-present and important as this election was, two years from now, it will seem like something of a scrimmage. If 2014 was expensive, the upcoming campaigns for president, the Senate seat currently held by Republican Richard Burr and governor will be garish – starting earlier, costing more, flouting the rules and lying to voters.
Here's what we saw this year and what it tells us about the future.
Air wars begin early and will not let up
The first salvos of the U.S. Senate campaign's ad wars were fired in 2013. A nonprofit putatively set up to boost the fortunes of Republican legislative candidates aired an ad that looked an awful lot like Tillis' first campaign commercial that March. A few independent spending groups followed up that summer to boost Hagan with "thank you" ads.
Then, in October 2013, Americans for Prosperity aired the first ad talking about the Affordable Care Act, what some people call "Obamacare." From that point on, there were a few small breaks in U.S. Senate advertising. From Feb. 4 this year through Election Day, no day went by without at least a handful of spots related to the U.S. Senate campaign airing somewhere on broadcast television in North Carolina.
There is a strong argument to be made that the first ads of the 2016 campaign for governor have already aired.
A nonprofit group called Renew North Carolina aired spots in 2013 aimed at propping up Gov. Pat McCrory's sagging approval ratings. Even in the heat of this year's U.S. Senate campaign, the Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental groups found time – and money – to blast the governor over the Feb. 2 coal ash spill on the Dan River.
With McCrory and Burr facing re-election campaigns and presidential contenders potentially eying North Carolina, there's no reason not to expect this pattern to stop. Off-and-on spending will likely pop up through most of 2015, and the battle will be fully joined by sometime next fall.
Outside money was important
The most reliable tally of spending on the U.S. Senate campaign has been maintained by The Center for Responsive Politics, which has documented more than $111 million in spending on the North Carolina race alone.
But only a quarter of that was spent by the candidates themselves.
The rest of the spending, some $81 million, came from a mishmash of nonprofits, vaguely-named political action committees and various political party organizations.
Through mid-October, Hagan's campaign outspent Tillis 3-1. While documented spending by outside groups didn't entirely close this gap for Tillis, they kept it close.
For anyone who experienced the campaign mainly through election ads, this means the candidates were less defined by what they had to say about themselves and more by what others were saying about them.
It's also important to note that outside organizations were not merely spending on television ads. The groups had get-out-the-vote efforts to complement official candidate and party operations. While phone banking and door-knocking isn't as expensive as television air time, it is equally important.
We'll never know actual price of campaign – or who paid it
The $111 million figure documented by the Center for Responsive Politics will grow later this year when Hagan and Tillis file their final campaign reports.
Whatever that final number is, it will certainly be wrong, missing a big chunk of spending.
While there are periods of time when any organization mentioning a candidate for federal office must report their spending, there are large parts of the year in which they do not.
So, while Americans for Prosperity, a conservative nonprofit tied to billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch, reported spending less than $700,000 in North Carolina to the Federal Elections Commission, figures from media tracking firm Kantar Media estimate the group plowed at least $1.2 million into the state in 2014 alone.
Another example: American Action Network, which describes itself as a "center-right action tank" spent some $67,000 on television advertising in March 2014. However, it was never required to disclose that spending to the Federal Elections Commission.
Even when groups do report their spending, they do not always report who gave the money. Nonprofits that air election-style advertising are often set up to explicitly avoid donor disclosure requirements. Roughly $31.5 million in election spending that was disclosed to the FEC for the U.S. Senate campaign came from groups that either do not report their donors at all or only partially disclose them.
All of which means that the most important players – or at least the some of those spending the most money – never have to report to voters how much they're spending on behalf of a candidate or who is bankrolling their organizations.
Rules against coordination are farcically ineffective
In theory, outside spending groups such as Senate Majority PAC and American Crossroads cannot coordinate with the official candidate campaigns. This prohibition is supposed to prevent campaigns from directing proxy spenders who would otherwise be giving de facto campaign donations.
If 2014 showed nothing else, it is that these rules make up an withered and moth-eaten fig leaf that do little than challenge young campaign staffers to find the most clever and convenient route around them.
Candidates post reams of B-roll – generic video of them walking through offices or meeting voters – online as quasi-campaign ads never meant to air on their own. But those same vignettes of Hagan talking to veterans and Tillis wooing voters he met on the sidewalk ended up in campaign-style advertising by groups such as the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and the National Rifle Association.
Hagan's campaign regularly sent out a memo titled "Week Ahead in #ncsen" that highlighted news stories favorable to the candidate and themes the Democrat would be hammering on for the week. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee would frequently distribute what it called an "important message for North Carolina voters." Themes in those documents frequently showed up in the advertising of allied groups that couldn't officially coordinate.
Republicans, too, had ways of sending messages to allied groups. On Oct. 17, Tillis campaign manager Jordan Shaw wrote a detailed memo outlining the campaign's media strategy and where the Republican would like to spend more money if it were available. For example, Shaw wrote of the Charlotte and Raleigh markets that, "Our polling indicates we are on track in both of these markets, but it is of some concern that we are at a deficit to our opponents." Data from Kantar Media suggest outside spenders did help Tillis pull even in the last two weeks of the campaign in those markets.
Truth is first casualty in campaign air war
Just because a claim shows up in a 30-second spot doesn't mean it's true. In fact, very few political ads got an entirely clean bill of health from our fact checks.
Claims about education funding cuts and teacher raises, legislative successes, voting records and the health care law all stretched the bounds of reason this year. Although there's no official tally, it's certain that millions of dollars were spent to air ads that were at best misleading and and at worst outright lies. For example, despite every non-partisan fact-checker in the business saying the claim that Tillis' General Assembly cut $500 million from K-12 education was wrong, Democratic groups repeated it with gusto throughout the election.
Given the standard for those who air campaign ads seems to be whether they're effective, not whether they're accurate, this trend almost certainly will continue.