A look at the dark-money group weighing in on New Hanover's Commissioner Race
In the last weeks of the campaign, a television ad endorsing two Republican and one Democratic candidate aired in the Wilmington area, raising some eyebrows. It’s not just the cross-party ticket that struck some as odd, it’s also the group behind the ads --- a Raleigh-based super-PAC, the type of political committee that doesn’t often wade into local municipal or county races.
The group also produced television ads and mailers targeting two additional Democratic county commission candidates, an aggressive approach the New Hanover County GOP has largely avoided.
The ads and mailers are produced for the Conservative Leadership Committee NC (CLC). Founded in the final days of the 2016 election cycle, CLC is a state-level Independent Expenditure Political Committee --- commonly referred to as a super-PAC.
A product of the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision, super-PACs operate under different regulations than traditional political committees. The big differences: unlimited spending and looser restrictions on reporting contributions. The latter has led some to refer to these committees as ‘dark money’ groups, since it’s more difficult for the public to determine who is funding the group's activities. Super-PACs can also donate to other super-PACs, sometimes leading down a funding wormhole. Groups like CLC do have some restrictions including, importantly, a prohibition on donating to or coordinating with individual candidates and their campaigns.
CLC has spent over $20,000 on state-level races this summer, but its more recent expenditures on the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners race have not been published yet.
The first ad, which appeared on Spectrum Television, endorses Republicans Deb Hays and Bill Rivenbark, but also Democrat incumbent Jonathan Barfield, Jr. for the three seats on the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners. In addition to the inclusion of Barfield, the omission of former commissioner and fellow Republican candidates Brian Calvin “Skip” Watkins took some by surprise.
Asked for his reaction to the ad, Barfield noted that, by law, he could have no communication with a super-PAC like CLC. He speculated that his emphasis on economic resilience and development could have resonated with CLC, despite his party affiliation but said anything else he had heard about the endorsement was just “scuttlebutt.”
While the New Hanover County GOP has made donations of $2,500 to CLC in recent years, according to OpenSecrets.Org, Chairman Will Knecht said he had not had any conversations with CLC and didn't know who was involved in the group.
The second batch of ads, which appeared both as television spots and mailers, fell along more predictable political lines by attacking Democrats. They did, however, surprise candidates Kyle Horton and Leslie Cohen – the targets of the ads – both because super-PACs don’t frequently get involved in local politics and because the ads were so aggressively negative.
One series of ads targeted Horton, including a mailer that claims she “never owned real estate or paid real property taxes in New Hanover County.” A television ad made a similar claim, although omitting the word “real,” which refers to land and buildings; the television version would thus be inaccurate, since Horton has paid property taxes on her vehicle.
Horton took to Facebook to decry the ad --- and to point out that 43% of New Hanover County’s residents rent and effectively pay property taxes that are baked into their lease payments by their landlords.
“Apparently, only homeowners can run for office. What’s next, only property owners can vote? It also seems that they believe renters are second class citizens who can’t be trusted. Of course renters pay property taxes—the owners push those costs along in the rent payments. We also own vehicles and pay property taxes for those,” Horton wrote on Facebook.
The other series targeted Cohen with a mailer that read “Leslie Cohen went Bankrupt! Now she wants to manage our tax dollars!”
Cohen said she wasn’t surprised to see the attack ad but noted she was surprised to see a dark-money group get involved in a local race. Cohen said her campaign had expected her opposition during her 2018 state representative campaign to bring up the bankruptcy, but they never did. After the ad mailers went out, Cohen said she had actually seen positive reactions.
Cohen noted that the bankruptcy was 30 years ago and stemmed from her first business venture with her husband.
“Am I proud of it? No. But I’m not embarrassed by it. Many first businesses fail, and I’ve learned a lot about business since then that’s allowed me to be successful,” Cohen said, adding that in the difficult economic conditions during the Covid-19 pandemic, her bankruptcy has allowed her to empathize with struggling business owners.
While CLC’s tactics have caught some off guard, it’s not the first time a super-PAC has weighed in on a local race, nor is it the first time such a group has strayed from a straight party-line endorsement.
In 2016, the Conservative Future Fund group took out a full-page ad in the StarNews, attacking Republican County Commissioner Beth Dawson, who was at the time competing in the primary election. Like CLC, the Conservative Future Fund was organized by Raleigh-based attorney Roger Knight, whose wife Kathy Knight served as treasurer for both organizations.
Dawson lost her bid to advance to the general election, but a complaint was filed against the group by Mike Hager, at the time the Republican House Majority Leader. (Earlier this month, WHQR contacted the state Board of Election to inquire about the status of the complaint; this article will be updated with a response once it is received.)
Not long afterward, in June of 2016, the dissolution of the Conservative Future Fund was approved and the group was officially disbanded in 2018.
The Knights did not respond to email and phone messages requesting comment.
Ben Schachtman can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @ben_schachtman.