Raleigh, N.C. — When Patrick Mouton or one of his field staffers knocks on doors in Greensboro and Winston-Salem, they do their best to sell voters on why they should back Hillary Clinton for president.
"We've also been talking to people about the Richard Burr and Deborah Ross Senate race," Mouton said last week. "We've been trying to get the people who are excited about the presidential election and get them interested in the Senate."
Ross, a Democrat and former state lawmaker, is trying to unseat Burr, the Republican incumbent.
Mouton doesn't work for the Democratic Party, the Clinton campaign or any other candidate. He's a field organizer for Working America, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO union organization.
The group is one of many non-candidate organizations from both sides of the political spectrum vying for the attention of North Carolina voters on their doorsteps, in their mailboxes and over the airwaves. With a little more than a month to go before Election Day on Nov. 8, North Carolina's status as a swing state in the presidential election and close races for governor and U.S. Senate have combined attract spending from a number of players with a stake in the outcome of elections.
While it has become commonplace for voters to see and hear campaign ads from various groups on radio and television, field operations like Working America's are becoming more common as well. That could be a boon for those in races down ballot from the presidential contest.
"The Trump situation has sucked all the air out of other kinds of political conversations," Mouton said, referring to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. "There's not a lot of information trickling down about some of the other races."
Outside spenders are trying to punch through that clutter from the presidential race in a number of ways.
Can voters tell the difference?
They sure look like campaign ads.
"State legislator Deborah Ross voted repeated to make community college more expensive," intones the announcer in an ad that uses old state budget votes to contrast Ross' call for affordable tuition.
Meanwhile, a Spanish language ad that begins by criticizing Trump tells viewers that Ross "believes in immigration reform."
Neither ad is from the Burr or Ross campaigns.
Rather, the ad critical of Ross on community college funding came from Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money in support of candidates and campaigns. It is run by a former staffer for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The Spanish language ad came from Democracy for America, a political action committee that has to abide by traditional spending limits that was founded by former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, a one-time Democratic candidate for president.
Neil Sroka, communications director for Democracy for America, pointed out that, in 2014, Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan lost to Republican Thom Tillis by 45,608 votes. Given that there are roughly 125,000 Latino voters who have voted at least once during the past three elections, Sroka said they represent a group that could make a big difference.
"It's just a matter of introducing them to candidates and making sure they know which candidates are working for them," Sroka said.
They are just two of the various types of groups that can spend money on campaigns even though they're not directly affiliated with the candidates. While certain types of political action committees have to disclose their donors – both Democracy for America and Senate Leadership Fund do – nonprofits and union groups frequently do not.
Such "dark money" groups tend to be more active earlier in the campaign cycle before certain federal disclosure rules kick in, according to Erica Franklin Fowler, an associate professor of political science at Wesleyan University and co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks spending on presidential and U.S. Senate campaigns. This year, there has been a trend back toward groups that disclose more of their fundraising, she said.
"We saw more dark money in prior elections because people were concerned about backlash against them as donors," Fowler said.
That fear seems to have slackened some this year, meaning there is less – although still millions of dollars' worth – of dark money in the election from groups that don't disclose their donors.
Most voters, Fowler said, don't necessarily track who various outside spenders are or whether they disclose their donors.
"The vast majority of citizens can't keep track of these groups," she said.
Playing a big role
Even though rank-and-file voters may not know who those organizations are, independent spenders have already played outsized roles in most of North Carolina's major campaigns this year. As of Sept. 27, Burr's own spending on broadcast television advertising was just over $2 million, lagging slightly behind what Ross had already spent on her campaign, according to data provided to WRAL News by Kantar Media.
But approximately $1.2 million in buys from Senate Leadership Fund, part of $8 million in total spending on North Carolina the group has pledged, along with $1.8 million from a group calling itself One Nation and roughly $400,000 in spending from the National Rifle Association mean that voters have seen more anti-Ross, pro-Burr ads than media backing the challenger.
While broadcast ad spending doesn't capture money spent on cable television, direct mail or other operations, it is the most expensive part of the campaign and therefore a good proxy for spending on statewide contests.
"Most outside group advertising tends to be negative," Fowler said.
Candidates tend to take care of "bio" ads that establish their background and qualifications as a top priority, and when an outside group goes negative, she said, it can protect a candidate from the backlash against that negative ad.
That propensity for outside spenders to go negative is in full display in the NRA's ad in the campaign, which accuses Ross of voting "against personal liberty."
But the One Nation ad dials up potential Medicare changes and praises Burr for his work on the topic. "Tell Richard Burr: Keep fighting for North Carolina seniors."
One Nation is a 501(c)(4) social welfare nonprofit associated with American Crossroads, a group linked to Karl Rove, a strategist for former president George W. Bush. It does not disclose its donors.
While these groups aim to help candidates get elected, campaign consultants say advertising by outside groups can occasionally backfire on those it's supposed to help, in part because they don't distinguish between messages from a candidate and campaign messages aired by outside spenders.
"Voters don't distinguish" between candidates and their outside backers, said Paul Shumaker, a veteran North Carolina consultant who works with Burr and other GOP candidates.
He points to a 2004 ad by an independent group that labeled Burr "King Burr" that used a graphic of a crown landing on the Republican's head. Burr was making his first statewide run for office against Democrat Erskine Bowles.
"You had people talking about Erskine Bowles' ads and how they didn't like them," Shumaker recalled.
Focus on the gubernatorial campaign
While some groups clearly have partisan agendas, others like the NRA or environmental groups are driven by single issues.
No matter their motives, outside spenders are attracted by close races, and North Carolina's gubernatorial campaign is shaping to be one of the closest contests for a state executive mansion this year.
"We are launching an effort to expressly advocate for the defeat of Roy Cooper as a candidate for North Carolina governor," said Donald Bryson, state director for Americans for Prosperity, a nonprofit group linked to the conservative network stitched together by billionaire businessmen Charles and David Koch.
The group, Bryson said, will spend at least $100,000 on mail and online advertising to critique Cooper's views on energy policy.
Meanwhile, the political arm of Planned Parenthood, a group that argues for greater access to women's health care, including abortion, has declared North Carolina a "priority state" and will work against McCrory, Burr and Trump.
McCrory "doesn't believe women deserve the right to make deeply personal health decisions without government intrusion," said Paige Johnson, head of Planned Parenthood Action PAC North Carolina. "This fall, we’re knocking on doors and making phone calls to hundreds of thousands of North Carolina voters to make sure they know exactly where Pat McCrory stands on women’s health. North Carolinians are fed up with McCrory’s extreme politics, and his relentless attacks on women’s health won’t fly in 2016."
The announcements by Americans for Prosperity and Planned Parenthood mark an uptick in spending on the campaign as the early voting period approaches. But McCrory's campaign insists that uptick in spending merely continues attacks that have been leveled throughout McCrory's term.
"Outside groups didn't just start attacking the governor," said Ricky Diaz, a campaign spokesman. "While it's no surprise that there's more spending around an election, they've been attacking him since day one through coordinated attacks, ads and protests. Millions were even spent attacking the governor in ads even during the 2014 Senate race when he wasn't even up for re-election."
Diaz links the attacks to an infamous memo drafted for Blueprint NC, a group that helps coordinate like-minded liberal groups. Many of the groups that have been critical of McCrory throughout his term, he said, are not showing up as campaign opponents.
Planned Parenthood falls on that list, as does Conservation Votes PAC, an affiliate of the League of Conservation Voters, one of a number of environmental groups that have aired ads critical of McCrory. A new ad from Conservation Votes criticizes McCrory for his handling of coal ash cleanup in the state, an issue that has dogged his administration since a Feb. 2, 2014, coal ash spill in the Dan River.
Kantar Media data provided to WRAL News shows environmental groups have spent about $2.7 million on broadcast advertising related to the gubernatorial campaign over the past two years, or roughly 15 percent of the total spending in the gubernatorial race.
A doubled-edged sword
Outside spenders can, themselves, come in for criticism.
Americans for Prosperity, for example, says it will specifically target Cooper's support for federal clean power regulations that the group claims could raise energy prices for North Carolina voters.
But AFP's connection to the Koch brothers, who made much of their wealth in the oil and gas industry, has frequently opened the group to criticism that it merely attacks clean energy politicians because its major donors had an interest in fossil fuels.
Bryson says AFP opposes any type of subsidies for any type or energy production, be it oil and gas or solar and wind.
"We have more than 10,000 donors nationally," he said. "While we are very grateful for the support of Charles and David Koch, to boil AFP down to the support of two men is inaccurate because there are thousands of people who give us money."
Campaign consultants interviewed for this piece all say navigating a world in which non-candidate groups are spending big to speak with voters can be tricky.
"What allows me to sleep at night is understanding I can only control the things I can control," said Morgan Jackson, a strategist for the Cooper campaign.
He said the groups like AFP have been drawn into this year's campaign because McCrory is in an unusually tight race for an incumbent governor.
"It's no surprise they're coming in trying to rescue him," he said.
Jackson said candidates he works with pick and choose when they respond to outside attacks. Cooper has not, for example, fired back at AFP.
Brad Crone, another veteran Democratic consultant, says other campaigns are more aggressive in responding to attacks. That said, he added, candidates don't necessarily need to match television ad for television ad in an environment when online advertising and social media are reaching more and more voters.
As much as not, Crone said, he has the same concern as Shumaker that a purportedly friendly independent expenditure effort will backfire.
"The biggest issue you have in a campaign with an independent expenditure is that their message may not be your candidate's message," Crone said.
Given the amount of independent spending expected to come into the state over the next month, there will be plenty for Crone, Shumaker and their colleagues to keep an eye on.