Following the Funds: Why is so much money being spent on one NC state Senate race?

North Carolina Politics

EDENTON, N.C. (WAVY) — The job they’re running for pays less than $14,000 a year, but the campaign for North Carolina’s 1st Senatorial District is already responsible for more than $4 million in spending.

North Carolina may be ground zero for the already record spending 2020 election. The U.S. Senate race between Rep. Thom Tillis, (R-N.C.), and Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham is already expected to be the most expensive Senate race in the country’s history with a whopping $277.6 million spent, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

But in the northeast, part of the state commercials of state Sen. Bob Steinburg, (R-Edenton), and Democratic challenger Tess Judge of Kitty Hawk rule the airwaves.

From July through mid-October, the candidates themselves spent $1.2 million on television ads alone. Committees like the left-leaning North Carolina Families First and right-leaning Citizens for a Better NC House have produced their own spots supporting each of the candidates. They’ve sunk an extra $2 million in the race.

But why is a Senate race that, two years ago, didn’t see both candidates combined exceed a million dollars in spending, now one of the most expensive races in North Carolina history? 

Dr. Ben Melusky, an assistant professor of political science at Old Dominion University, says it’s as much about who has the power in the U.S. House of Representatives than anything else.

“This may go down looking years down the road as the election that broke the dam on money,” Melusky said. “The reality is every single seat, it doesn’t matter what election you’re looking at, really has matter.”

Whoever has the majority of power in the North Carolina General Assembly will control how congressional districts for the next 10 years are drawn.

With North Carolina expected to gain a 14th seat because of population increase, boundaries could change dramatically. Even enough to switch historically Republican and Democrat seats in our nation’s capital.

Both major parties would prefer it to switch in their favor. Currently, Republicans control the state’s legislative branch with an eight-seat majority in the Senate and 10 seats in the House.

“There is literally balance of power in the equation here,” Melusky said.

Currently in the North Carolina Senate, Steinburg believes that because his district was historically a Democratic stronghold, the state party leadership decided to go after him.

“I have never seen any election that even remotely resembles this,” Steinburg said. “This is beyond the pale.”

Steinburg — who is wrapping up his first term in the Senate after three terms in the House — has been outraised and outspent by Judge.

But if you take out individual contributions from outside the state, he has a sizable lead. 

Only 4% of his identifiable individual donors last quarter came from outside North Carolina. For Judge in the same time period, 52% did.

“That is obviously an attempt to buy this election from voters from out of state,” Steinburg said.

Campaign finance records show that Judge received a considerable number of donations from New York and Florida, which are often referred to as “blue states” by Republicans.

However, in the last quarter, Judge also reported more than $90,000 in donations from contributors that didn’t need to identify themselves because they donated a small amount.

“And I have a real problem with that,” Steinburg said. “I believe we need to take a look at some legislation that will — at least in the state of North Carolina — that will ensure that every contribution has a name and address attached to it.” 

Judge did not immediately return requests for an interview.

CORRECTION: The broadcast version of this story incorrectly stated state Sen. Steinburg received out of state money from big Republican donors via other committees. WAVY-TV apologizes for the error.

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