Republicans are meddling in North Carolina’s Democratic primary. A dark-money group is spending more than a million dollars to promote Erica Smith over Cal Cunningham, the favorite of the political establishment. The group believes Smith would be an easier opponent for Thom Tillis to beat than Cunningham. 

Meddling in the other party’s primary is not that rare. A GOP group is encouraging Republicans to vote for Bernie Sanders in South Carolina’s presidential primary right now. Back in 2012, Democrats famously (or infamously, depending on your point of view) ran ads to support Todd Akin in Missouri’s Republican primary for US Senate. Akin was a weak general election candidate with a lot of baggage and the move allowed incumbent Democrat Claire McCaskill to hold her seat for one more term. 

In North Carolina that same year, a third party group jumped into the lieutenant governor’s primary and successfully swayed the vote. Back then, former state Representative Linda Coleman faced state Senator Eric Mansfield in what was short race. Gov. Bev Perdue announced in January that she wouldn’t run for re-election, setting off a scramble that led to a three month campaign. Coleman only raised about $25,000 but the State Employees Association of North Carolina spent about $500,000 to successfully promote her candidacy. 

The Republican group believes Smith is the weaker of the two candidates because she has shown little ability to raise money. The ad sounds like a parody of what Democrats say about themselves but it will still likely boost Smith. She will get name recognition and exposure that she lacks. The ad is targeted to the most liberal wing of the party but also lets African American voters know that there is an African American candidate in the race. It might not seal the deal but could give people reason to learn more about Smith. 

If the group’s efforts are successful they might rue the day they spent that money. Smith is no Todd Akin, an extremist who lived with his foot in his mouth and alienated moderate voters in Missouri. Her problems are structural. She’s failed to put a successful fundraising operation in place or build a modern campaign. She’s been running a state senate race in a US Senate primary. Her problems could likely be fixed after the primary if she is willing to listen to people who understand campaigns better than her. An African-American woman in a US Senate contest could be a historic candidacy that drives out black voters at numbers approaching Obama’s in 2008. 

That said, I still think Cunningham has the advantage. He has built a better organization and his advertising will more realistically reflect his candidacy. In addition, the third party group supporting him, Vote Vets, has given him an advantage that means Smith is playing catch up.

The real story, though, is that dark money can now dominate our politics. In declaring that money is essentially speech, the courts have given disproportionate power to corporations and wealthy individuals to influence our elections. If Smith is successful, a third party group trying to undermine the Democratic Party will be largely responsible. If Cunningham beats that money, his early support from a Democratic-leaning Super Pac will have played a significant role in inoculating him. Big money dominating our campaigns is bad for our democracy.  

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