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Friday, December 9, 2016

by Theodoric Meyer and Kim Barker, ProPublica.

Most people have come to associate outside money — the hundreds of millions of dollars from politically active nonprofits and SuperPACs pouring into American elections — with conservatives.

And why not? Since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, conservative groups have far outspent their liberal counterparts. In the 2012 federal election cycle alone, conservatives shelled out almost two and a half times the amount of outside money as liberal groups, including labor unions.

But an early look at spending on television ads in North Carolina, home to a hotly contested Senate race and a number of competitive state races, shows that liberals are asserting themselves as never before. They are spending almost as much as conservatives in the Senate race and pouring funds into state contests that conservatives haven’t yet spent a cent on.

A ProPublica analysis of North Carolina’s top three markets shows liberal groups have booked $2.8 million in ads as of Monday praising Senator Kay Hagan, a freshman Democrat facing a tough re-election fight, or criticizing her likely opponent. That’s about the same amount as conservatives have reserved in ads attacking Hagan. A coalition of liberal nonprofits has also poured more than $1.1 million into ads criticizing four Republican state senators.

The surge in advertising by liberal outside groups is obvious when you turn on a TV in the state, said Gary Pearce, a longtime Democratic consultant in Raleigh, NC.

“It has struck me, I’d say, in the last month,” he said. “It’s just been a dramatic shift.”

About 42 percent of the outside ads in the North Carolina markets — $3.1 million worth — were booked by so-called dark money groups, nonprofits that do not disclose their donors. The rest were booked by SuperPACs, which do name their contributors, and a liberal charity, which discloses its donors in its annual reports.

In the past, analysts have speculated that liberals’ relative lack of outside spending reflected their discomfort with dark money groups and SuperPACs, both of which can raise unlimited amounts of money. Even the most prominent liberal dark money groups, such as Patriot Majority USA, spent a small portion of what conservative ones like Crossroads GPS and Americans for Prosperity did in 2012.

The leading liberal SuperPAC in the 2012 cycle, Priorities USA Action, spent $65 million on election activity. In contrast, Restore Our Future, the leading conservative SuperPAC, spent more than $142 million.

But there’s been a growing push on the left to play by the same rules as conservatives. Randy Voller, the chairman of the North Carolina Democratic Party, said that while he thought the Citizens United ruling was “a colossal mistake,” he didn’t think that liberal outside groups had an alternative to playing by the same rules as conservatives ones.

“At this point, these are the rules we have,” he said.

So far, in the 2014 cycle, groups focused on the environment have led the way for liberal dark money groups.

Liberal billionaire Tom Steyer has formed NextGen Climate, which plans to support legislators who push for action on climate change and attack those who don’t. The organization includes a dark money nonprofit, and has said one of its aims is to counter libertarian billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, who help fund a network of dark money groups. (Steyer’s wife, Kat Taylor, is a member of ProPublica’s board of directors, and the couple have been significant contributors to ProPublica.) This month, two other environmental nonprofits announced they were starting a collaboration called LeadingGreen to steer donations to federal candidates and help major donors lobby elected officials.

For this story, we analyzed ads booked this year in Charlotte, Raleigh and Greensboro. Most of these ads don’t tell people directly to vote for or against a candidate, so they don’t have to be reported to the Federal Election Commission unless they run right before an election. But since 2012, the Federal Communications Commission has required TV stations in the country’s 50 largest markets to post the ad contracts online. Our analysis only includes ads that were booked since the beginning of the year — although conservatives spent heavily in North Carolina last fall — and there’s no guarantee that stations have uploaded every contract.

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