Raleigh, N.C. — U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan was one of 17 federal lawmakers, Republican and Democratic, for whom the American Chemistry Council ran glowing advertisements last summer, according to a report from the Sunlight Foundation.
The foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based good-government watchdog, highlights the buys as part of its reporting on "dark money" spending by nonprofit groups. Its piece focuses on U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican, but mentions that Hagan "benefited from scores of ads the Chemical Council bought in her state last summer."
Hagan is running for re-election this year. Among the Republicans seeking the chance to unseat her are House Speaker Thom Tillis, Dr. Greg Brannon of Cary and Rev. Mark Harris of Charlotte.
The council is a 501(c)(6), a trade organization akin to chambers of commerce. The rules for (c)(6) organizations are similar to the rules for better known 501(c)(4) "social welfare" groups, such as Americans for Prosperity. Neither have to reveal their donors or report in detail their ad spending, but their commercials are logged by the Federal Communications Commission. That's how the Sunlight Foundation logged just somewhere around $100,000 in ad spending by the council, mainly in the the Triad area where Hagan lives.
By comparison, AFP has spent millions of dollars slamming Hagan because she supported the Affordable Care Act.
Although the scale is different, the mechanisms are much the same. As the Sunlight Foundation reports:
"Those spots are part of a much larger campaign of similar ads that the Council has been buying since the 2014 election cycle got underway last year. It's an effort that makes an important point about loopholes in campaign finance law that allow significant political favors to be done outside of the public eye.
"Even though the ads for Upton, along with those for 17 other members of Congress, are described on the Chemistry Council's YouTube site as "Support for" the candidates, they have never been reported to the Federal Election Commission. The Chemistry Council's reported "independent expenditures" for the 2014 cycle so far: zero.
"There's nothing illegal going on here: Campaign finance law says an ad that praises or criticizes a candidate by name isn't a "political" ad unless a) it airs within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election or b) it "expressly advocates" for the candidate's election or defeat. The Chemistry Council's ads thread the needle by avoiding the use of the so-called magic words: vote for or vote against."
In response to the foundation's story, Hagan campaign spokeswoman Sadie Weiner emphasized that the bills in question were supported by lawmakers across the political spectrum. She added that Hagan supports legislation that would require groups like the Chemistry Council and AFP to disclose their donors.
"Unlike her opponents, who refuse to support the DISCLOSE Act, Kay supports the bill to increase transparency because she thinks that all groups, no matter their political leaning, should have to disclose who funds them. Right now, Americans for Prosperity has spent over $8 million in undisclosed money to reward Thom Tillis for pushing an agenda in Raleigh that was bad for middle-class families but good for the Koch brothers," Weiner said, referring to the billionaire industrialists who bankroll AFP.