Raleigh, N.C. — Sheila Salter may have better name recognition among North Carolina voters than some would-be lawmakers running for office this year, thanks to an Americans for Prosperity ad in which she stars.
Hagan, a first-term Democratic U.S. senator from Greensboro, faces re-election this year, and the Salter ad has been in heavy rotation on television stations throughout the state for much of January.
Americans for Prosperity, a national conservative group linked to mega-donors like North Carolina's Art Pope and the billionaire Koch brothers, has spent more than any other group in North Carolina since the beginning of the 2014 campaign cycle, and it has poured more money into this state than any other where they are airing campaign style ads.
But officials with the group will tell you they don't consider the Salter spot, or two others than ran in late 2013, campaign ads.
"We don't tell people who to vote for," said Donald Bryson, North Carolina policy specialist for Americans for Prosperity.
The ads are issue advocacy, Bryson said, designed to inform the public about policy, not affect election outcomes.
"Even-numbered years are a very good time to bring pressure on public officials," he said. "We are trying to hold her (Hagan) accountable on what we think is a bad decision on her part."
Steve Greene, a professor of political science at North Carolina State University, laughed out loud at the assertion the AFP ad wasn't meant to influence a campaign.
"They would probably laugh out loud themselves if they didn't have to say that legally," Greene said. "It's preposterous."
Preposterous or not, Americans for Prosperity occupies a murky and expanding gray area in modern American campaigning. Officially, the group's ads are aired by its 501(c)4 arm, what the IRS defines as a "social welfare" group. Federal regulators are exploring how to better get a handle on spending by the organizations, which are not supposed to spend more than half of their money and time on political activities. But what exactly those rules might do is far from certain.
In the mean time, unlike traditional campaign organizations, 501(c)4 groups do not have to disclose their donors and can take unlimited sums of money from businesses and individuals alike. They also trigger federal and state disclosure rules only at certain times of year close to an election date. While AFP is the biggest spender in the state so far in this very young U.S. Senate cycle, thus far AFP has not been required to report its spending in North Carolina to election regulators.
Political scientists and campaign workers agree AFP is likely to have plenty of company in North Carolina this year.
Bryson said the group has spent a combined $5.1 million on the three television ads that have aired since the fall, plus another $125,000 on a radio campaign that ran concurrently with the Salter ad. Democratic media trackers place the total spend on the U.S. Senate campaign closer to $7 million, counting a summertime ad that urged Raleigh lawmakers to pass a sweeping tax reform bill. Bryson disputes that number, saying the group's total media spending in the state is under $6 million, even going back to May 2013.
Not in dispute, however, is that North Carolina – and specifically Hagan – is a focus for the group.
According to figures compiled by Kantar Media published in The New York Times, AFP ads have run more than 3,500 times in the state over the past five months, twice as many instances as in Louisiana, the next-closest state. That spending has outpaced groups allied with Hagan, including a $750,000 television campaign by Senate Majority PAC, a group controlled by Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and a direct mail campaign by the National Association of Realtors.
Some of that spending is driven by North Carolina's geography. The state is cleaved by four major media markets, two of which – Raleigh and Charlotte – are universally described as "expensive" by campaign operatives. But AFP acknowledges that it has paid more attention to this state than any other so far.
"North Carolina is considered a priority state for Americans for Prosperity," Bryson said, noting that it was among the group's initial state organizations and that recent conservative victories in the state legislature make the state even more appealing.
"North Carolina is one of those few states that AFP terms as a 'model state,' a state that is moving toward being a free market beacon of light. We want to support that," he said.
Why are they spending here?
Along with North Carolina, viewers in Louisiana, Alaska and New Hampshire are also seeing campaign-style ads from Americans for Prosperity this year. Those happen to be states where competitive U.S. Senate races are on the national political radar. In Florida, West Virginia and Arizona, U.S. House contests have also drawn AFP spending.
As an independent expenditure group, Americans for Prosperity is not allowed to coordinate its message with campaigns. However, the message in its North Carolina ads does track closely with Republican candidates like state House Speaker Thom Tillis, the leading contender in what is likely to be a six-way primary to challenge Hagan this fall.
He points out that AFP will support Democrats who take stands consistent with the group's policies. For example, in 2012, AFP did a direct mail piece on behalf of state Rep. Marcus Brandon, D-Guilford, who has been a vocal supporter of charter schools and other school choice options.
Democrats clearly see a link to Tillis.
In 2013, the General Assembly pushed through a package of tax cuts, refused to expand Medicaid in response to the Affordable Care Act, trimmed unemployment benefits and took other steps long urged by AFP. Tillis, as speaker of the House, played a key role in passing those measures.
"The bottom line is he's tied to these special-interest groups. He does what they want him to do, and it hurts North Carolina," said Ben Ray, a spokesman for the North Carolina Democratic Party.
Tillis said he views Americans for Prosperity's spending simply as a sign of North Carolina's importance in the national political puzzle.
"I really think it's just evidence of the fact that North Carolina is ground zero for the 2014 elections," he said. "The majority of the U.S. Senate will likely be determined by the outcome of the election in North Carolina."
Political scientists generally agree that North Carolina will be one of a handful "toss-up" states that Republicans will need to win to take control of the U.S. Senate.
Asked whether AFP's spending is either payback for supporting the group's agenda in the past three years or paying it forward to a likely ally, Tillis went on the attack.
"I would assume that would mean the $750,000 that Sen. Reid put into this state is payback for (Hagan) voting with him 96 percent of the time," he said.
According to an analysis tool published by the Sunlight Foundation, Hagan has voted with Reid 84 percent of the time.
Sadie Weiner, the Hagan campaign's communications director, acknowledged the television ads could affect the campaign, but she said they would not play a decisive role.
"North Carolinians aren't going to be fooled by outsiders who are trying to buy this election," Weiner said.
Hagan has a well-stocked campaign war chest. Final reports are not yet in for 2013, but she reported raising $2 million in the last three months of the year said she started 2014 with $6.8 million on hand.
Still, if anyone knows the impact outside advertising can have, it's Hagan. In the summer of 2008, a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee ad featuring two older gentlemen in rocking chairs hammered former Sen. Elizabeth Dole, a well-funded and popular incumbent, throughout the summer. Polls showed the Republican's approval ratings fell during that time, clearing the way for a fall victory by Hagan.
That may be why Democratic operatives are eager to turn conversations about AFP's ads targeting Hagan into a conversation about Tillis.
"I think they know that Kay (Hagan) is never going to push their special-interest agenda, but they've seen great success in getting that agenda pushed in North Carolina," Weiner said.