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Deep Dive: Significant PAC spending failed to block New Hanover Republican school board candidates

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Rachel Keith
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NHC Board of Elections
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Progress NC put roughly $120,000 into the school board race, sending mailers supporting Democratic candidates and opposing Republican ones. But while the outside spending appears to have given Democrats the fundraising advantage, it didn’t have the desired impact at the polls. It’s also not, as some have claimed, the work of billionaire George Soros.

For many, campaign financing is the sordid flipside to the patriotic fervor of democratic elections — even for local races in New Hanover County.

This year’s election is reportedly the most expensive midterm campaign in U.S. history, the result of an ongoing spending arms race, fueled in part by several Supreme Court decisions. Members of both parties have decried the increase in outside influence that’s part of this trend — but little has been done to de-escalate the funding war.

Wrapped up in the problematic relationship between campaign finance and elections is the underlying belief that money matters. The winning side in any given election may see the process more favorably than the losing side — but few discount the impact of spending on voter turnout.

Much of the big-ticket spending goes to federal and gubernatorial races, but not all.

Background

In 2020, the Conservative Leadership Committee NC (CLC), a state-level Independent Expenditure Political Committee, sometimes referred to as a super-PAC, spent $146,000 opposing two liberal Democratic candidates for New Hanover County commissioner — Leslie Cohen and Kyle Horton — and supporting a bi-partisan slate of candidates including Democrat incumbent Jonathan Barfield, Jr., Deb Hays, and Bill Rivenbark. All three of the candidates backed by CLC won.

This year, Progress NC spent $120,000 supporting four Democratic candidates for the New Hanover County Board of Education; it also spent in Guilford and Wake counties. (Note: In this article, “Progress NC” refers to the ‘combined Progress entities,’ including its PAC and its’ 501(c)4 non-profit arms).

Much of the spending came from the North Carolina Association of Educators, which donated $200,000 to Progress NC, and worked with them on targeting the campaign spending.

This was part of a dramatic increase in campaign spending on the school board race. While candidates in the past several county commissioner races have routinely raised tens of thousands of dollars, school board candidates have raised more modest amounts. In 2020, the top Republican and Democratic vote-getters both spent around $5,000. In 2018, the top two vote-getters, both Democrats, raised around $15,000 and $7,000.

This year, fundraising was up by an order of magnitude, with Republicans raising over $140,000 — much of that from top vote-getter Pat Bradford, who raised over $80,000. Republicans out-fundraised Democrats by about $60,000.

The influx of $120,000 from Progress NC closed that funding gap twice over, and yet, Republican candidates swept the race, taking all four seats.

The gap between top Democratic vote-getter Veronica McLaurin-Brown and fourth-place Republican Melissa Mason was 1,434 votes — firmly outside the recount range of 880 (per state statute, that’s 1% of their combined votes). So, while it’s plausible that Democratic candidates could have fared worse without Progress NC’s spending, tens of thousands of dollars worth of mailers clearly didn’t put them over the top.

Why spend in New Hanover County?

Progress NC’s spending in New Hanover County was not a snap judgment, but a culmination of over a year’s worth of work, according to Executive Director Jess Jollett.

“Progress’s intervention in the school board races here was actually a culmination of a 12-to-18 month collaboration we did with parents and educators and organizers across the state that were really concerned about the far-right rhetoric that they saw being spewed at school board races –and the far-right organizing they saw taking place,” Jollett said. “So we’ve been working collaboratively with organizations, like NCAE, and other organizers across the state, like Red Wine and Blue, to help people create a communications plan that talks about the real issues that we’re seeing in our schools, like the Leandro case, or like teacher pay.”

Jollett said that Progress NC and many of its partners saw Lieutenant Governor Mark Robinson as pushing divisive rhetoric — used by school-board candidates across the state — that seems to pit parents against teachers on issues like transparency, curriculum, and accountability for student success. Jollett said Progress NC saw school board candidates in New Hanover County, as well as in Robinson’s home county of Guilford, seeking to emulate his language or actively work to get his approval.

While many have decried Robinson’s language, particularly when it veers into homophobic remarks, it has nonetheless been effective in mobilizing his supporters on the right — and is driving his likely run for governor. That, Jollett said, could drive more campaign spending in 2024.

Why didn’t it work?

But in terms of Progress NC’s 2022 spending, why didn’t it move the needle for Democratic candidates?

“Of course, I'm disappointed in those results, I would have liked to achieve my goal. But looking at the numbers, it just says to me that New Hanover is still competitive. These were very close margins between the candidates who won and the candidate that lost the school board race, like in many places in the state. And we're looking at over 40% of the people that voted in the school board race voted for Democratic school board members,” Jollett said, adding that while it was “obviously a loss” the results support the need for “organizing and engaging.”

“Because it’s not a foregone conclusion how the election will turn out,” Jollett said.

Andre Brown, chair of the New Hanover County Democratic Party, also noted that despite the Republican sweep it was a relatively close race — and that even a minor uptick in Democratic turnout at the polls could have shifted the balance.

(For more from Brown on the 2022 election on the Port City Politics podcast, click here).

He pointed to the fractious nature of the Democratic candidates, compared to the four Republicans who effectively ran a joint campaign — as well as some of the baggage carried by incumbents of the school board, which has been riven by in-fighting and dysfunction.

“The general, anecdotal messages or thoughts that I received from people who are not political, who were not even affiliated with a particular party, was that this current board is dysfunctional. And they want it to vote for anyone except for the incumbents. And I think that really hurt us because our two candidates with the lowest number of votes were incumbents,” Brown said.

Brown also noted that Democratic voters showed up for Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Cheri Beasley — who lost the state-wide vote but bested Republican candidate Ted Budd in New Hanover County.

“So, if we’re in unison as a party behind Cheri Beasley,” Brown said. “Why is that not replicated down-ballot? “

For his part, Will Knecht, chair of the county GOP, said he felt that “no amount of money” from the progressive left was going to outweigh parents and grandparents who became invested in the school board race.

(For more from Knecht on the 2022 results on a recent Port City Politics episode, click here).

“It’s quite apparent that parents spoke loud and clearly. Parents want more of a say in their child’s education. Parents see the school system needing to get back to the basics and to do a better job at educating children in reading, writing, math, civics. Parents want better support for the great teachers in our school system. Parents want an end to the dysfunction that has marked this school board's tenure. And parents want each child to be given an opportunity to be all they can be post-graduation, whether it be preparing them for an honorable role in the trades or preparing our students to be the best they can be in college,” Knecht said.

Where the money came from: NCAE, a private donor

According to North Carolina State Board of Elections records, from the beginning of 2022 to the end of April, Progress NC had about $2,000 in the bank — and the PAC didn’t raise any money in the second quarter, covering May and June.

Then, in early September, Progress NC got $100,000 from Liz Simmons, co-founder and board chair of the San Francisco-based Heising-Simons Foundation, which supports “sustainable solutions in climate and clean energy, enable groundbreaking research in science, enhance the education of our youngest learners, and support human rights for all people.” Simmons didn’t respond to requests for comment about her donation. Jollett said she had not spoken directly with her.

The PAC also received a smaller donation of $25,000 from the LJS Revocable Trust, based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which has donated millions to liberal causes, including $345,000 to North Carolina Families First over the last several years.

Later that month, Progress NC got another large donation, this time from the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE), which donated $200,000; according to NCSBE, this appears to be NCAE’s only major donation, although the PAC associated with NCAE spent roughly $86,000.

NCAE was unable to provide an interview to discuss why the organization focused on New Hanover County, but offered a statement from NCAE Associate Executive Director Nicole Price:

“In the lead-up to the 2022 election, NCAE worked with partners to push back against negative attacks and misinformation that sought to undermine trust in public education. With national organizations coming into our state to spread conspiracy theories about what is being taught in public schools, I am proud of the partnership with organizations that share our values and the teachers, school bus drivers, and other NCAE members who worked to ensure voters heard the truth about candidates running for school board and other elected offices.”

Where the money didn't come from: George Soros

During the election, campaign fliers distributed by Tide Turners NC alleged that all of the money funding Progress NC Action came from George Soros. Tide Turners describes itself as a 501(c)4, which is regulated by the IRS and doesn’t have to disclose donors — although it briefly incorporated as a PAC, and did report roughly $11,000 in initial donations at the end of 2021.

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Flier created by Tide Turners NC.

It is inaccurate to say that funding from Soros funded Progress NC Action’s activity in 2022, based on campaign finance reports.

However, it does appear that some money from the billionaire, who has been open about his involvement in U.S. political races, indirectly made its way to Progress NC Action in the past.

Soros gave $2.6 million to the National Democratic Redistricting Committee in 2018. The same year, NDRC gave $2 million to Pacronym, a PAC created by the progressive group Acronym, according to the Associated Press. Soros also backed ‘Good Information, Inc.’ — a public benefit corporation dedicated to fighting misinformation — founded and run by former Acronym head Tara McGowan. Pacronym gave $345,000 to Progress NC in 2018.

Asked about the Tide Turners’ claims about Soros, the non-profit’s director of development, Lindy Ford, said, “at the time of our writing about the funding for NC Progress Action PAC, everything included was taken from their financial disclosures. We embellished nothing.”

Ford said that at the time Tide Turners put out their fliers alleging Soros’ funding was behind the Progress NC ads, campaign finance records only showed about $2,000 in the bank for the super-PAC; the disclosure reports for the donations from NCAE and Simmons were filed after the third quarter.

“We are even more concerned about NCAE giving to such a group and wished we could have written about that. We would like to ask the NCAE, ‘If you proclaim yourself to be a 'non-partisan,' educator group, why would you donate to such a deeply progressive, partisan organization as NCPA? Why would you only support Democratic candidates?’ To our knowledge, these candidates have said little about academic excellence and training our children for the real world. The Republican candidates are the only ones talking about academics,” Ford added.

Invoking Soros’s name is often a key part of conspiracy theories, particularly anti-Semitic ones but, at the same time, Soros does openly weigh in on U.S. politics, including financial efforts to defeat George Bush’s reelection campaign in 2004 (you can find a fact-check on some, but by no means all, false claims about Soros from Reuters, here). So it’s not always clear whether pointing to his involvement is a dog whistle or a complaint about the outsized influence of outside money in elections — particularly local elections.

Asked why Tide Turners focused on the financial ties to Soros, Ford said, “the left-wing, self-serving, globalist billionaire made his money manipulating currencies." He's left many countries almost bankrupt. His response in a 60 Minutes interview to that? ‘I am there to make money. I don't look at the social consequences of what I do.'"

Ford added, "Tide Turners NC felt it was important to show the connection back to Soros to understand how one person’s decades of work is changing our nation's political landscape on a community level. Soros has built an empire to make his political vision a reality, helping to establish and fund groups that have a significant, destructive trickle-down effect on New Hanover County, our local elections, and our children.”

The oft-repeated claim that Soros is an anti-Semite — or even a Nazi — frequently cites the 60 Minutes interview referenced by Ford; but it's debunked here by the Washington Post, along with four other myths. Soros, a Holocaust survivor, does have a complicated relationship with Israel and has been repeatedly denounced by pro-Israeli groups, as well as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing government, at one point in an apparent attempt to align politically with Viktor Orban, the autocratic far-right Prime Minister of Soros's native Hungary, according to Reuters.

Regardless of Soros' political leanings and opinions, he did not actually spend any money in New Hanover County for the 2022 election.

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.