It’s up to the N.C. State Board of Elections to decide whether Art Pope, the Raleigh conservative, broke any rules in his attacks on former House Co-Speaker Richard Morgan and the breakaway Republicans.

What’s clear is that Pope’s money helped fuel a purge within the GOP, punishing legislators who made deals with the Democratic majority and replacing them with true believers who will toe the party’s anti-tax, anti-spend line–or else.

Over two sets of primary elections, in 2004 and 2006, Pope’s funds, funneled through a pair of independent, nonprofit organizations, helped defeat nine or perhaps 10 Republicans, including Morgan. (One disputed ’06 nail-biter is being rerun). Also among the victims: Michael Decker, who switched back to the Republican side in ’04 after his deal with Black in ’03.

What’s especially noteworthy is how easy it was for Pope to replace these Republicans with other Republicans, since in almost every case the district involved was gerrymandered to favor the GOP and minimize the possibility of a Democrat being elected.

For example, in 2004, Pope helped pay for ads attacking former GOP Rep. David Miner in southwest Wake County (District 36), relating how Miner supported higher taxes (never popular with Republican primary voters) and backed “special rights” for homosexuals. Miner was beaten in the ’04 primary by Nelson Dollar, who went on to be elected without any Democratic opposition. (A Libertarian candidate was Dollar’s only opponent.)

Pope-backed ads just missed on Rep. Rick Eddins in District 40 (Northeast Wake) two years ago, but they did get the job done this year. And again, it’s such a lopsided Republican district that the GOP primary winner, Marilyn Avila, has no Democratic opponent in November.

Morgan’s complaint to the elections board documents that Pope’s family-owned company, Variety Wholesalers Inc., spent at least $460,000 in connection with five ’04 primaries. Not all that much for a business that owns more than 500 Maxway, Rose’s, Super 10 and Bargain Town stores in 14 states, according to its Web site. (Pope’s father is CEO of the company. He is vice president.)

And it’s really not much when you consider how few votes are cast in the typical GOP primary. In the case of Avila versus Eddins, for instance, the total was just over 3,000.

Pope, a member of the state Republican party executive committee, is accused by Morgan of coordinating his “issue advocacy” efforts with the Republican party officials and consultants, including former Raleigh Mayor Tom Fetzer’s firm, who were working for the candidates running against Morgan and his allies. In 2004, the state GOP formally read Morgan out of the party on grounds of “disloyalty.”

If coordination can be proven, Pope’s spending could be considered a contribution to specific campaigns, not independent advocacy, and might be found to violate two state laws–the limit on individual contributions, and the prohibition against using corporate money in political campaigns.

However, Pope can be expected to argue that the ads he helped to finance were all about issues, and legislative records, and did not cross the line that separates political free speech from regulated campaign spending.

Pope told me he wouldn’t discuss the Morgan case with the Indy, adding that a column I wrote about it (“Can a Pope sin?” July 19) was inaccurate and biased. In interviews elsewhere, however, he’s made it clear that he doesn’t think he broke any laws.