NC GOP divided by bill to let leadership set up own fundraising means

The same bill that moves North Carolina's presidential primary to March 15 also allows lawmakers to create their own party organizations. Some see the move as a power grab.

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Mark Binker
RALEIGH, N.C. — Lawmakers on Thursday passed House Bill 373, which would move North Carolina's primaries for all offices up for election in 2016 from May to March 15. The shift in dates is designed to make North Carolina an earlier, and therefore more important, player in the presidential primaries.

That section of the bill would make changes to accommodate the earlier primary date, including moving the candidate filing period to December.

But much of the bill, a compromise measure that was rolled out Thursday night, lays the groundwork for "affiliated party committees," which could be set up by the leaders of the Republicans and Democrats in either chamber of the legislature. Lawmakers would be able to create their own political organs parallel to the main Republican and Democratic party apparatuses.

Currently, money raised by the House and Senate caucuses is piped through the Republican and Democratic state parties and reported as part of the party's overall fundraising.

The bill easily cleared the Senate Thursday morning on a 30-13 vote. But the vote in the House was much closer – 52-49 – as the prospect for a new fundraising apparatus stirred discord among GOP representatives. Republican House members met for hours behind closed doors on Thursday to debate the measure among themselves as they got pressure from outside the Legislative Building to back off the proposed change.

"The rationale, frankly, was to improve transparency," Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, said just before the House took up the bill Thursday afternoon. Reporters and others interested in how the caucus raised and spent its money would no longer have to use accounting codes to sift out the money from voluminous reports filed by the parties.

Parties can take donations collected by all of their lawmakers and candidates and target that money on a few key races that are close. In the past, Lewis said, parties have not diverted funds raised by lawmakers to other purposes, such as get-out-the-vote efforts, so it should make little difference if there are parallel organs, he said.

Lewis and others said that Republican Party Vice Chairwoman Michele Nix visited the meeting. Lewis said that Nix confirmed that allowing legislative caucuses to set up their own campaign accounts would not affect party finances, although others described her comments as being more critical of the plan.

An unsigned email blast purporting to be from the North Carolina Republican Party headquarters called the provision a "poison pill" and asked citizens to pressure their lawmakers to kill the measure.

"These party committees run by caucus leadership will be able to accept unlimited party PAC money traditionally directed through the state parties," the email said. "Caucus leadership will be able to spend this money, however they see fit, unbound by the party rules traditional party leaders are constrained by. They will be able to insert themselves into primary contests."

As of 5 p.m. North Carolina GOP Chairman Hasan Harnett had not returned a phone call or email seeking comment. State Republican Party spokeswoman Kara Carter said the party "is not commenting at this time."

However, multiple people with knowledge of the email, including lawmakers, said it came from Harnett.

Harnett was not backed by either Gov. Pat McCrory or top legislative leaders when he ran for the position this summer. Since then, the party has seen some of its top staffers, including its executive director, abruptly leave their positions.

But Lewis insisted creating the parallel committees was not a sign that lawmakers had lost faith in the party.

"Certainly, I support the chairman," said Lewis, who in addition to being the House Rules Committee chairman is also a national committeeman.

Before the House vote, Rep. John Blust, R-Guilford, said the measure would be viewed as "a slap" at the state party. On the floor, he argued that the House was pushing through provisions without vetting them through the traditional committee process. Blust said he didn't see the measure until late Thursday night and said it read like a bid to sap power from the party.

"I was a little bit taken aback that, all of a sudden, the winds have slightly changed and the party is not controlled by who we want, so let's set up our own funds," Blust said.

In all, 19 House Republicans, including Blust, voted against the measure.


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