In keeping with the nationwide trend, big money-backed candidates swept races in North Carolina’s statewide primary last week.

Political newcomer Bo Hines and U.S. Representative Ted Budd, who secured the Republican nominations for the 13th Congressional District and the U.S. Senate, respectively, received more than $10 million combined in outside spending from conservative super PACs to support their campaigns.

Big money also figured heavily in a number of Democratic races, despite the party’s grassroots values. Cheri Beasley, a former chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, won the Democratic primary after amassing sizable contributions from a wide range of out-of-state PACs, and winning Democratic congressional candidates and state senators Don Davis and Valerie Foushee were each backed by the United Democracy Project, a super PAC created by the pro-Israel lobbyist group AIPAC.

Outside spending for Foushee made the race for NC-04 the most expensive congressional primary in North Carolina history; she received roughly 20 times more bundled AIPAC money than other North Carolina candidates, according to FEC records, and also benefited from $1 million in outside spending from the cryptocurrency billionaire-backed Protect Our Future PAC.

Once publicized, the support became a source of controversy, particularly in the race for North Carolina’s 4th Congressional District, where the once-amicable supporters for Foushee and Durham County Commissioner Nida Allam—two qualified candidates with strong progressive platforms who would each make history if elected—became polarized and hostile.

Criticizing Democrats who receive massive PAC support is warranted: if elected to Congress, they become part of the small group that actually has a shot at expunging big money from politics, so it’s reasonable to question a candidate’s progressive integrity if big money is what’s getting them a seat at the table.

Particularly in social media spheres, though, the conversation around the primary’s big money spending rapidly devolved into unproductive banter, with many progressive voters spewing expletives and posting screenshots of FEC records with rage as their only context. When the discourse loses nuance, we turn our swords toward each other and lose sight of some key questions: Why are these contributions problematic? Why is our campaign finance system structured in a way that allows for them? And if this is the system we exist under, to what extent are candidates required to play the game for a chance to sit at the table?

To help answer these questions and widen our lens in the wake of the North Carolina primary, the INDY spoke with Bob Phillips, the executive director of the left-leaning government watchdog group Common Cause NC, about the impact of big money on election outcomes and the worrying trajectory of our current campaign finance system.

INDY: How much does money impact election outcomes compared to factors like a candidate’s qualifications or platform?

BP: Money is a differentiating factor for helping a candidate establish name recognition and credibility, particularly in a primary. There’s a saying that the first duty for a candidate running for office is to win the “money primary”: to raise the most money and crowd out potential competition at the get-go. Money is not always determinant of who’s going to win, but it does make a difference.

Do you think big money contributions drove the outcomes of the North Carolina primaries?

That seems to be the story in both the Democratic and the Republican U.S. Senate primary, for sure. And outside dark money probably did have an impact in terms of elevating a candidate’s name, particularly in—perhaps you’re referencing one of the congressional districts in the Triangle, where both candidates weren’t widely known. That’s what money does; commercial television is still one of the top places where people get their information, and I don’t think there’s any way to deny that [TV ads] did not have some significant impact.

Why do some voters take issue with candidates receiving big money contributions?

It’s always the appearance. It’s hard to prove, but there’s an appearance that special interest, big money sources are going to have undue influence on a candidate. Even if the candidate swears that that’s not going to be the case, and the entity providing says it’s not going to be the case, it has that appearance. We need a better way of financing campaigns to eliminate the influence of big money contributions.

And what would be a better way to go about financing campaigns?

Some form of public financing—which North Carolina actually had, once upon a time. When you have a public fund—we can say that our elections are owned by the public, and the public fund is just another part of that, where candidates prove their validity and credibility and then receive a grant—that’s a system that works. It helps level the playing field and takes the pressure off candidates who are having to go out and raise money, and it also prevents the appearance of a donor or a PAC having influence over a candidate. In many ways, it cleans up campaigns; another rule of politics is “define your opponent first,” and oftentimes all those negative, nasty campaign commercials are the work of dark money PACs. I think those create the cynicism and apathy that we have, and depress voter turnout—for young people particularly, when they get inundated and barraged with [negative ads], they feel like, “Why would I want to participate in something like this?” What we have now is—there’s a seat, but at what price? Do we want to accept the people who represent us to be for sale? It is undeniable that it takes money to run for office, and North Carolina is a big state. People who are running statewide particularly need money, and even people who are running for a legislative seat. Money is necessary, but where it comes from has always been a concern. We should separate or cut the ties off from PACs and individual donors and put it into something more like a public fund.

Why did we move away from that public fund model?

A combination of litigation, which opened up the floodgates for undisclosed money from PACs and corporations, and the shift in power that occurred here in North Carolina 12 years ago, where the majority party simply repealed the public finance program we had—which had actually benefited candidates from both parties. Unfortunately, and not to sound too cynical, everything is about winning, and political parties want to maintain what they feel gives them the greatest advantage. Public financing may not be something that they want to embrace, because they feel like it perhaps takes away an advantage that they have.

What options does a candidate really have, if a PAC contributes a lot of money to their campaign and voters are upset about it? Many people voiced concerns about big money contributions in the recent primary, but I’m not sure exactly what steps they wanted candidates to take. Should candidates denounce the contributions? Or reject them, if that’s possible? Or would rejecting a large amount of money be a dumb move on a candidate’s part, even if it’s making people upset?

Sometimes, candidates will take pledges not to take PAC money. It would be great if all candidates could adhere to that. But when you’re running for office, it’s all about winning, and no one wants to unilaterally disarm. There are organizations that do this kind of “follow the money” thing—in the campaign that we just got through in North Carolina, there was certainly knowledge about who was behind some of the outside money—but to what extent it matters is hard to know. I wish I had an answer other than just having some other way of financing campaigns, and that’s not easily done in the climate we’re in. All that citizens can do right now is to continue to express their desire for a better system, and demand that the people who are running adhere to something better. That would maybe mean that a candidate pledges not to take PAC money, and pledges to call for a cease and desist of any funds that are being spent on their behalf—either to support their campaign, or to denounce their opponent.

To your other question, though, [rejecting big money contributions] is hard to do. When you’re a candidate, the reality is that you’re looking for every advantage you can. If some outsider comes from afar and is spending money against your opponent, or for you, it is tough for them to denounce it. I wish that more candidates would, but I understand why they don’t.

Has there historically been evidence of a quid pro quo implied in big money contributions, despite candidates saying that contributions won’t impact how they’ll govern?

There have been some cases of clear bribery, but generally, it is very hard to prove. But regardless, in a democracy, why do we want to have a system that elevates people with the most money to a place at a table? There are so many good people that could serve but will never consider it because they don’t have the means to get into the game. This is a longtime issue that has festered our election cycles and is only getting worse, and we have to reform it if we want to save our democracy.

Some candidates have “red boxes” on their websites that essentially spell out information for PACs to include in ads, in the event that a PAC wants to finance an ad supporting them. To my understanding, the red box is a way to circumvent laws that prevent candidates from working directly with PACs. Could you talk a little more about this, and why it’s legal?

That’s one thing that’s really fuzzy in the law. When Citizens United came down, unlimited money could be spent on behalf of electing or defeating a candidate by a wealthy individual or corporation, and the law was that there could be no direct coordination. And yet we see that, oftentimes, it’s former employees of the candidate who go to work for these PACs; [if asked about red boxes], candidates would say, “We’re just letting folks know they can help us,” but it’s a definite signal telegraphing to these PACs what they need. There should be bright lines. It’s legal, I guess, because it has withstood challenges that say it’s proof of clear-cut coordination. But again, there’s the appearance—it’s hard to deny that that’s what they’re for. It’s just part of what adds to the cynicism and the lack of trust that a lot of people have about our government, democracy, and the people who we elect. And it is a shame. It’s not so much that the candidates are bad but that the system is rotten to the core.

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