Television ads in North Carolina have been telling voters for weeks that there is only one "proven progressive" on the ballot in the March 3 Democratic Senate primary, asking a series of rhetorical questions about who supports "Medicare for All", the Green New Deal and has the endorsement of progressives and unions.
The ads, funded by a group calling itself the Faith and Power PAC, proclaim that underdog candidate Erica Smith "is one of us."
Who formed the PAC? Republicans.
After weeks of deflecting questions about the advertisements, the Senate Leadership Fund — a GOP super PAC associated with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — on Friday claimed responsibility.
In a statement, SLF President Steven Law called the ad blitz "an unqualified success" because it forced presumed front-runner Cal Cunningham to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars against Smith, a little-known primary opponent. The PAC believes that will weaken Cunningham against incumbent Sen. Thom Tillis, assuming Cunningham wins the nomination.
"Democrats are burning cash in a $13 million rescue mission for Cal Cunningham, who has proven to be a lackluster candidate with less money in the bank today than the beginning of the year," Law said. The statement linked to a report in The Hill newspaper that had traced campaign filings from the Faith and Power PAC to Republican political committees.
The Faith and Power PAC was formed at the end of January and had two contributions, totaling almost $3 million, from the Senate Leadership Fund, according to disclosures with the Federal Election Commission. Its only expenditure was $2.4 million supporting Smith.
That report said the PAC had spent more than $1 million on advertisements backing Smith.
Through Feb. 12, Smith had raised just $238,000 and had $128,000 in her account at the end of the period. Cunningham had raised $4.7 million, including $1.4 million from Jan. 1 to Feb. 12. During the same period, however, he spent $1.6 million, and had less than $1.5 million left in his account on Feb. 12.
Tillis, meanwhile, had $5.4 million in his account on Feb. 12 after raising $700,000 and spending $605,000 since the beginning of the year.
Law said the GOP-funded campaign "pressured" Cunningham to "tack left" on a number of issues, including saying he would support Sen. Bernie Sanders if he wins the Democratic presidential nomination. Republicans have attempted to paint vulnerable candidates around the country this year as "socialists" to turn voters away from them.
But a Democratic source close to Cunningham's campaign said the ads touting Smith as the most progressive could blunt any effort to use to attach the label to another Democrat.
"The most puzzling part of their strategy was the fact that in the process of trying to turn voters against one candidate, they actually undercut Tillis' own ability in the general to align Cunningham with socialism or with policies like GND and Medicare for All," the source said.
Both parties tend to publicly frown upon meddling in the other sides' primaries. But the Senate Leadership Fund said in its statement that it was following Democrats' lead. It referred to mailers and radio ads distributed to Republican voters during Tillis's first race in 2014, which claimed that Tillis supported the Affordable Care Act.
"We stole a page out of Chuck Schumer's playbook, and it's been more successful than we could have imagined," the statement said.
Cuningham accused the GOP of "shady meddling."
“These tactics are the very corruption North Carolinians are fed up with because it’s preventing us from taking action on the issues that matter to our neighbors, like investing in health care and education, or addressing the climate crisis that’s ravaged our state," he said in a statement. "I’ve got a message for McConnell and his allies — your scheme won’t work and I’ll see you in November.”