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2014-05-07

Will Dark Money Reshape North Carolina Political Landscape from Senate Race to State Supreme Court?

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In one of the first closely watched races of the 2014 primary season, North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis has won the Republican Senate nomination. Tillis will face Democratic Senator Kay Hagan in November in a race that could decide which party controls the U.S. Senate. The North Carolina primary drew national attention pitting Tillis, backed by much of the Republican establishment, against candidates with close ties to the tea party and religious right. As speaker of the North Carolina House, Tillis was a frequent target of the Moral Monday protests over the past two years. Primaries were also held Tuesday to determine who will sit on the state’s Supreme Court. The races have gained national attention because millions of dollars from outside groups have poured in to the state to back conservative candidates. One TV ad bought by a secretive outside group accused state Supreme Court Judge Robin Hudson of being "not tough on child molesters." North Carolina is one of 22 states where judges on higher courts are elected rather than appointed. We are joined from North Carolina by Chris Kromm, executive director of the Institute for Southern Studies.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: In one of the first closely watched primaries of the 2014 election season, the speaker of the North Carolina House, Thom Tillis, has won the Republican U.S. Senate nomination. He will now face Democratic Senator Kay Hagan in November in a race that could decide which party controls the Senate. The Republican primary drew national attention as it pitted Tillis, who was backed by much of the Republican establishment, against candidates with close ties to the tea party and the religious right. Some analysts described the primary as a proxy war in the battle for the soul of the Republican Party. Tillis had received endorsements from big-name Republicans, including Mitt Romney, Jeb Bush and Karl Rove, as well as the National Rifle Association. One of his challengers, tea party favorite Greg Brannon, was backed by Senator Rand Paul, while another challenger, Mark Harris, a Baptist minister, drew support from Mike Huckabee. In the end, Tillis received 45 percent of the vote, enough to prevent a runoff. As speaker of the North Carolina House, Tillis was a frequent target of the Moral Monday protests over the past two years.

AMY GOODMAN: Primaries were also held Tuesday in North Carolina to determine who will sit on the state Supreme Court. The races have gained national attention because millions of dollars from outside groups have poured into the state to back conservative candidates. North Carolina is one of 22 states where judges on higher courts are elected rather than appointed.

To talk more about North Carolina, we’re joined by Chris Kromm in Raleigh. He is executive director of the Institute for Southern Studies.

Let’s go first to the Thom Tillis race. Talk about the significance of what happened there. It is being seen as a bellwether for the Republican Party all over the country, Chris.

CHRIS KROMM: Well, North Carolina is a bellwether state, and this race, I think, just drove that home. Two of the big storylines for me are, one, this escalating arms race of big money that’s increasingly deciding, including primary elections—we saw about $2 million coming in from outside groups that really wanted to back Thom Tillis as the establishment candidate for this Republican primary in an effort to topple Kay Hagan, the sitting Democrat, and eventually, like you said, win control of the U.S. Senate. So, Tillis was aiming for this 40 percent number. That’s how much he had to get to avoid a runoff.

But it also pointed to another big storyline, which is the civil war that Republicans are facing with the tea party. And going into this race, it wasn’t at all clear that Tillis, even with this establishment backing, really could pull it off. And in the end, he did. He got 45 percent. But it does raise the question, if those kind of right-wing challengers had coalesced around one candidate, maybe we would be seeing a costly runoff.

But just because Tillis is the establishment candidate, of course, doesn’t mean that he is a moderate candidate. He has also called himself the leader of the conservative revolution in North Carolina, which is why he was a target of the Moral Monday protests. And he’s on record—you’ve talked a lot in this show about climate change. Well, in a recent debate, he was asked flatly if he believed in the science of climate change, if that was a fact, and he said no. But that’s an example of, I think, how the overall debate has shifted to the right. He doesn’t agree in a minimum wage. He thinks that’s an artificial standard that’s being put on business. He promoted the anti-gay-marriage amendment in North Carolina. Kind of a series of positions that really puts him in the rightward camp. So even though he had a tea party challenge, it shows how much the political debate has shifted to the right in North Carolina.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Could you talk about—Chris, you mentioned the amount of outside money in this primary election race. Could you talk about who some of his backers, Thom Tillis’s backers, were in this election?

CHRIS KROMM: We saw two big players coming into the primary. One, nationally, was Americans for Prosperity. They have spent more money—this is the Koch brothers’ tea party group. They have spent more money attacking Kay Hagan than any other candidate across the country. And that started last fall. I mean, they’ve just been blanketing, a carpet bombing of the state of these attack ads, kind of trying to soften up support for Kay Hagan. Then, on the other side, you saw millions of dollars’ worth of ads supporting Tillis to really make sure he could survive this primary challenge from the tea party right. And again, there was about $1.6 million that came from Karl Rove’s group, American Crossroads. Last year they had set up this initiative called the Conservative Victory Fund, the whole idea being that they’d try to get the most electable candidates to face off in these general elections. So they wanted to make sure very early that you got somebody like Tillis, who is considered the more establishment candidate, who is going to survive the primary and come out in the end. And that outside money, I think, in the end—you saw how close that vote was in the primary—I think you can really say that outside money played a big role.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to comments of North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis in 2011 about residents on public assistance.

SPEAKER THOM TILLIS: What we have to do is find a way to divide and conquer the people who are on assistance. We have to show respect for that woman who has cerebral palsy and had no choice in her condition, that needs help and that we should help. And we need to get those folks to look down at these people who choose to get into a condition that makes them dependent on the government, and say, at some point, "You are on your own. We may end up taking care of those babies, but we’re not going to take care of you." And we’ve got to start having that serious discussion. It won’t happen next year—wrong time, because it’s going to be politically charged. One of the reasons why I may never run for another elected office is because some of these things may just get me railroaded out of town.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Thom Tillis in 2011, the North Carolina House speaker. And let’s go back to that clip from the North Carolina Republican Senate debate you just mentioned, when all the Republican candidates vying for their party’s nomination said climate change was not a fact.

TIM BOYUM: Is climate change a fact? Mr. Harris?

MARK HARRIS: No.

TIM BOYUM: Ms. Grant?

HEATHER GRANT: No.

TIM BOYUM: Mr. Brannon?

MARK HARRIS: No. God controls the climate.

TIM BOYUM: Mr. Tillis?

SPEAKER THOM TILLIS: No.

AMY GOODMAN: So there you have it on both of these issues. Chris Kromm, if you could address both? And talk about the ads, which were very clear in talking about Thom Tillis as center-right.

CHRIS KROMM: Well, and that’s the thing, is it’s really been a difficulty trying to position Tillis, given that he had to run somewhat moderate, distinguish himself from the tea party challengers, but also had to be conservative to try to win over some of that support and also own up to his record. That clip about public assistance became somewhat infamous. I mean, rarely does a politician openly embrace a strategy where they say, "We need to divide and conquer." Usually they don’t claim that kind of strategy, kind of harkens back to the Southern strategy that Richard Nixon mapped out for the South, you know, 40, 50 years ago.

You know, it really shows an attitude towards the public sector. Another place where that’s been reflected is in public schools. Here, North Carolina had always been considered a leader nationally with its public schools, and been a steady dismantling under Tillis’s leadership, cutting teacher pay, proposing the expansion of charter schools, vouchers for private schools. And so, it’s kind of this view that you would more associate with a tea party perspective about that the government can do no good.

And on climate change, you’ll notice they didn’t even say human-caused climate change; it was whether or not climate change at all is considered a fact. And he said no to that. And this comes out at the very same time, as your first guest pointed out, we have this National Climate Assessment, which showed that the Southeast is going to be one of the most intensely affected regions. The Mid-Atlantic is going to be a hotspot for sea-level rise, and here you have a candidate, who’s establishment Republican candidate, denying that the very existence of climate change is a phenomenon.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Chris Kromm, I also want to ask you about the judicial races in North Carolina. This is a TV ad that ran regularly in the lead-up to yesterday’s primary.

JUSTICE FOR ALL NC AD: We want judges to protect us. When child molesters sued to stop electronic monitoring of their locations, a law that let us track child molesters near schools, playgrounds, daycare centers, Supreme Court Justice Robin Hudson sided with the predators. Hudson cited a child molester’s right to privacy and took the side of the convicted molesters. Justice Robin Hudson, not tough on child molesters, not fair to victims.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Chris Kromm, could you talk about the group behind this ad, who’s funding them, and also about the fact that judges are being elected in North Carolina, because that’s perhaps not something that most—a lot of people are familiar with, that judges are also elected?

CHRIS KROMM: Well, this is becoming one of the key battlegrounds for elections. We do have judicial elections in North Carolina, and this year is going to be one of the biggest. Four Supreme Court races are up, seven total on—statewide, with the court of appeals, as well. And this has become a big money magnet for these outside groups, because they have a very big interest, including groups that are backed by corporations that often have business before the Supreme Court.

The group that ran that particular ad, which has been widely denounced and condemned—even some conservative commentators have said it’s one of the most despicable ads they’ve seen, that it’s based on lies, roundly condemned—was run by this super PAC called Justice for All NC. It doesn’t really exist as an organization. It hasn’t filed anywhere as a corporate entity. We went to go visit its office, and it turned out to be a UPS mailbox in a Raleigh strip mall. What it mostly is a funnel for money, and it’s gotten $900,000 this year from the Republican State Leadership Committee, the Washington, D.C., super PAC, which has taken a special interest in trying to get conservative justices elected in states like North Carolina. They were a big funder in 2012, helping elect a guy called Paul Newby, who is running for re-election. They had over $2 million worth of ads running for him this year.

We saw in the primary an attempt to unseat a sitting justice. These are nonpartisan races, but she’s a sitting—a registered Democrat, Robin Hudson—big money trying to unseat her and primary her out. She survived that challenge, and I think, in part, it was because these ads were so nasty that there was a bit of a backfire, backlash, against big money trying to call this race.

AMY GOODMAN: And what do you think this means for November, the big race between Kay Hagan and Thom Tillis?

CHRIS KROMM: Well, I think between that U.S. Senate race, you’ve got these Supreme Court races, state Supreme Court races—you’re going to see all records shattered in terms of the amount of big money coming into the state, a lot of it from these national super PACs, some of them with donors that you can’t even trace. Increasingly, this is going to be the money magnet. And that really points to the fact that North Carolina is this key battleground state. You have Moral Monday, you have the rightward turn, and big money sees it as critical that they spend to try to shape the political outcome and direction of the state.

AMY GOODMAN: Chris Kromm, I want to thank you for being with us, executive director of the Institute for Southern Studies, publisher of Facing South and Southern Exposure magazine.

That does it for the show. I’ll be speaking in Stowe, Vermont, on May 17th. Democracy Now! is hiring three part-time video news production fellows. Candidates should have video shooting and editing experience. Go to democracynow.org for details.

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