Role of outside money looms larger than ever as PAC-backed candidates surge to primary election wins

By: - May 18, 2022 1:06 pm

Sen. Valerie Foushee celebrates her primary victory. (Photo by Lynn Bonner)

Sen. Valerie Foushee celebrates her primary victory. (Photo by Lynn Bonner)

State Sen. Valerie Foushee of Orange County won the Democratic primary for the open seat in the 4th Congressional District, defeating Durham County Commissioner Nida Allam and six other candidates in a contest where the millions in independent PAC spending for Foushee became a central issue in the race.  

The United Democracy Project super PAC spend $2.1 million on Foushee’s behalf, according to Federal Election Commission reports. The UDP is a creation of the pro-Israel lobby group American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Foushee also received AIPAC-bundled campaign contributions of more than $430,000, Raleigh’s News & Observer reported.  Another PAC called Protect Our Future, which is backed by crypto billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried, according to Politico, spent more than $1 million supporting Foushee.  

The UDP also backed state Sen. Don Davis in his 1st District Democratic primary win. The PAC spent $2.4 million to support Davis, according to the most recent FEC report. He easily defeated the other high-profile candidate, former state Sen. Erica Smith.  

Big PAC money — in this case from the arch-conservative Club for Growth — also figured heavily in the hotly-contest Republican U.S. Senate primary, where three-term congressman Ted Budd trounced former governor Pat McCrory by taking 58.6% of the vote. McCrory, who led Budd by 10 points in a poll in January, lost by more than 34 points, taking just 24.6% of the vote. He won only in Mecklenburg, his home county and where he once served as mayor of Charlotte, but just barely, topping Budd by only 70 votes.

Earlier this month, Bloomberg Government reported that “millions of dollars in TV ad spending from the Club for Growth PAC gave Budd a roughly 15-to-1 outside spending advantage over his primary opponents.”

Budd will face former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley in November. Beasley, who has also raised significant sums from large, out-of-state donors, won all 100 counties and 81 percent of the vote in a Democratic primary field that included nine other candidates.

PAC spending highlights divides among Democrats

Out of state donors also aided Cheri Beasley (D) and Ted Budd (R) in their respective Senate campaigns.

The outside spending became an issue in the 4th District Democratic primary, with the Progressive Caucus of the state Democratic Party withdrawing its endorsement of Foushee in April, citing AIPAC’s support for Republicans who voted against certifying President Joe Biden’s election on Jan. 6, 2021.  

The outside money was important in those primaries, said David McLennan, Meredith College political scientist, in an interview Wednesday. Though Allam and Smith tried to make the PAC money an issue, “it didn’t get traction,” he said.  

While progressive Democrats claimed victories in other states’ primaries, in North Carolina, “the less progressive candidates won,” McLennan said.  

“Smith, Allam, they clearly had more progressive endorsements and progressive track records,” he said. “That was not going to work in their favor. I think the election results bore that out.” 

After her victory speech Tuesday night, Foushee downplayed the role of outside money in her victory in a brief interview. She called herself progressive.   

In a tweet, AIPAC celebrated the Foushee and Davis victories and Allam’s and Smith’s losses.  

In a Twitter thread, Allam wrote: “Right-wing super PACs and a billionaire who lives in the Bahamas had to spend over $3.6 million to defeat our movement in one election. That is the power we have built. They had to spend more money than anyone has ever spend in the history of a Congressional primary in North Carolina to win this race.” 

The district is heavily Democratic, making Foushee the likely successor to retiring Democratic U.S. Rep. David Price. The district includes Durham, Orange, Alamance, Granville, Person, and Caswell counties. Foushee will face GOP primary winner Courtney Geels in November. 

David McLennan, Meredith College political scientist

Foushee and her supporters began to celebrate Tuesday night as early returns showed her comfortably ahead of Allam.  

In her victory speech, Foushee said her primary came to symbolize “a fight for the soul of the Democratic Party.” 

“I hope that my victory tonight will start a larger conversation about who we are as Democrats. I hope that my victory tonight will speak to where voters are and were they want to go. I hope my victory will be a signal to others that you can be both progressive and pragmatic.” 

Foushee has a long history in Orange County politics, having served on the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City School Board, the Orange County Board of Commissioners and in the state legislature. EMILY’s List endorsed her.  

Allam was the first Muslim American woman to win elected office in North Carolina when she was voted onto the Durham County board in March 2020. Allam won endorsements from U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders and from the climate group the Sunrise Movement in the congressional race.  

Clay Aiken, a former reality show star who was runner up in the second season of American Idol was a distant third in unofficial primary returns. This was Aiken’s second run for Congress. He lost a general election race to Republican Renee Ellmers in 2014. 

First District contests

In the 1st District, Davis picked up endorsements from U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, the man he hopes to succeed, the North Carolina AFL-CIO, the NC Association of Educators, and other groups. Butterfield is retiring.  

Smith won endorsements from U.S. Sen. Warren and Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC.  

Smith ran in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate in 2020 and started another U.S. Senate run before switching to run in the 1st District, which includes all or part of 19 counties in northeast and central North Carolina. 

The Republican primary in that district attracted outside money, too.  

The Congressional Leadership Fund dropped in nearly $590,000 to support GOP candidate Sandy Roberson, the mayor of Rocky Mount, in the Republican primary.  The Congressional Leadership Fund is a super PAC “closely affiliated with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy,” according to Politico.  

Roberson finished behind Sandy Smith in unofficial results of the eight-way primary. Smith ran against Butterfield in 2020.  

Bo Hines (Courtesy photo)

In the 13th District, Bo Hines, the candidate backed by former President Donald Trump and the Club for Growth, topped the Republican field in the open-seat primary. Club for Growth Action spent $1.6 million supporting Hines or opposing Kelly Daughtry, a Smithfield lawyer who came in third. Daughtry loaned her campaign more than $2.9 million, according to the latest FEC filing.  

The Trump endorsement and the Club for Growth backing proved a winning combination for Hines, and mirrors the outcome produced for U.S. Rep. Ted Budd in the GOP primary for U.S. Senate. 

Though Daughtry was able to spend on television ads, the Club for Growth Action put some of its money toward attacking her, “claiming she was something other than an America First candidate,” McLennan said. “That’s a powerful message for Republicans in that district.” 

DeVan Barbour came in second in that primary.  

State Sen. Wiley Nickel of Cary easily won the 13th District Democratic primary and will face Hines in the fall.  

The district is considered a toss-up. It covers all of Johnston County, southern Wake, western Wayne, and eastern Harnett. 

Kirk Ross contributed to this report.

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Lynn Bonner
Lynn Bonner

Investigative Reporter Lynn Bonner covers the state legislature and politics, as well as elections, the state budget, public and mental health, safety net programs and issues of racial equality.