Cash is King in Raleigh

April 24, 2022

Most people understand that corporate special interests exert significant influence in our politics. But many people have a hard time understanding exactly what form that influence takes. Campaign finance data, particularly in North Carolina, is not only difficult to find, but unless one knows exactly what to look for, it can be hard to decipher.

That’s why we launched NC-PACS. NC-PACS is a simple Google Sheet – retrievable at the short link – where our research team tracks the largest corporate political action committees (“PACs”) registered in North Carolina, and who (or what) they’re giving to.

North Carolina’s campaign finance reporting runs on a two-year basis, meaning that 2021 and 2022 are both considered a part of the ’22 election cycle. We have prepared a simple infographic illustrating the contribution patterns of the top 41 state-level corporate PACs by total contributions in the 2022 election cycle. These numbers are current through the most recent reporting period (April 30th):

(click image to download)

A few notes: this is far from a comprehensive list of the thousands of state-registered PACs. In this list, we are focusing on the largest PACs based in the business community, because these are by far the largest and most influential.

In addition to corporate PACs, there are also many issue-based PACs as well. These are backed by individual donors, instead of businesses, and advocate for specific issues (like education, healthcare, gun reform, etc.). Very few of these PACs are of appreciable size. For the sake of comparison, we have included the NC Association of Educators (NCAE), a frequent target by far-right political pundits, on this list. It is a quite small PAC.

A very quick lesson in North Carolina campaign finance

In North Carolina, as in many other states, political candidates are explicitly prohibited from receiving campaign contributions directly from a corporation. However, many corporations (or corporate interest groups) are allowed to form PACs, through which they may legally engage in political action.

Individuals may donate up to the legal maximum contribution limit of $5,600 to any candidate for office once during a primary, and again during a general election, for a total of $11,200 over the course of a single cycle. These limits apply to PACs as well. A law Republicans passed in 2013 automatically raises the maximum contribution limit every two years to keep up with inflation.

Those contribution limits only apply to direct giving to candidates and PACs. Political parties themselves (and their affiliated accounts) can still accept unlimited donations, which they often do.

$5,600 (or even $11,200) frankly isn’t a huge amount of money in the grand scheme of an individual campaign. But don’t forget that there are 170 members of the legislature, and most of those members face challengers in primaries or the general election. Throw in statewide candidates (council of state and more), and this adds up to several hundred people around the state trying to raise money every two years. Deep-pocketed PACs can – and do – thus spread an awful lot of money around the legislature by giving to many lawmakers.

What this report tells us

In brief, we see that the corporate community has already begun investing heavily in influence with the Republican caucus. Historically, most “hard” campaign giving (that is, direct contributions to candidates) doesn’t get started in earnest until the election year (in this case, 2022) – so the first three quarterly reports in 2022 will tell us much more.

Bear in mind that the “hard” giving we see here is really the tip of the iceberg of total political spending. So-called “dark” money, which usually pays for expensive items like TV ads and mailers, is often an order of a magnitude larger in volume than what you see disclosed on candidate finance reports. As just one example, Duke Energy and the NC Chamber of Commerce are rumored to have given several million dollars to a GOP-controlled dark money group, run by the Raleigh consultancy Martin & Blaine, attacking Democrats in the 2020 cycle.

How to interpret this data

One dynamic you’ll notice is that legislative leaders always raise the most money. A corporate PAC with agenda items it wants heard will almost always give first and foremost to Senate Leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore. After them, they will give to powerful legislative leaders, like Senator Brent Jackson (Chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee) and Rep. Jason Saine (Chairman of the House Finance Committee), who have the power to advance or kill legislation. Contributors with specific interests will often concentrate their giving on legislative members on committees relevant to them, like in agriculture, finance or healthcare.

Our team will update this chart (as well as NC-PACS) when the next quarterly update lands in mid-May.

Edit, June 3 – Updated to reflect most recent numbers.

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