Helen Probst Mills knew there would be challenges when she decided to escalate her volunteer work with community organizations and Democratic Party fundraising into a first-time run for public office.
She faced two-term incumbent state Sen. Tom McInnis, who grew up in the area and runs a local business. The newly drawn Senate District 25 stretches from one of the poorest counties in the state, Scotland, to one of the wealthiest communities, Pinehurst, where Mills lives.
Campaign advisers steered her away from spending whatever money she could raise on expensive TV advertisements because it would require buying air time in the Raleigh as well as Charlotte markets to reach the entire district. That left a lot of door-knocking, barbecues and fundraising over the past several months leading up to Tuesday’s general election.
But in the final stretch Mills’ visibility has increased, thanks in part to out-of-state groups that have been trying to push fresh Democratic candidates into statehouses across the country, several recruiting women.
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One of her benefactors is an example: One Vote at a Time, which was started in 2016 by two young women in the film industry who were motivated to do something about gun violence. They have lined up a million-dollar video ad enterprise with the goal of electing 190 Democrats who they describe as pro-choice and pro-gun safety to legislatures in North Carolina and nine other states.
One Vote has produced professional-quality video ads for two dozen, mostly first-time North Carolina candidates for state House and Senate, and for state Supreme Court candidate Anita Earls. Most of the North Carolina candidates have reported receiving in-kind contributions that place the value of each video at $1,930, according to third-quarter records; a few have gone as high as $3,000.
The group chalked up its first political victory last year when 10 of the 19 Virginia House of Delegates candidates it worked with won, co-founder Sarah Ullman said. Democrats picked up 15 seats, which nearly left the House evenly divided after a long period of GOP control, The Washington Post reported.
“I think we’re making a difference by helping candidates all over the country get access to the resources they wouldn’t ordinarily have, especially on a state legislature level,” Ullman said in a phone interview from Los Angeles. “Our goal is to provide the candidates in-kind (contributions) so that they can use their money in the field. They can spend their money where we think they should, which is field operations and getting out the vote.”
This year’s One Vote at a Time national legislative campaign kicked off in North Carolina. Ullman said the experience of working with candidates, usually working-class people from different backgrounds making their first run for office, has been rewarding.
“It’s been really moving, really sustaining,” she said. “It gives you the courage to keep going.”
One Vote has registered a federal super PAC for raising campaign contributions, and in North Carolina a regular PAC with its $5,200 limit for each contributor. One Vote’s contributors are not hidden behind the privacy protections of a nonprofit organization typical of “dark money” funding. It relies entirely on disclosed individuals.
Those individuals happen to be some of the top movie stars, producers and directors in Hollywood. Screenwriter Joss Whedon (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Justice League,” “Avengers” and many others) helped get the organization going by chipping in about $500,000. Other Hollywood contributors include Ben Affleck, J.J. Abrams, Emma Bates, Josh Burstein and Danny Elfman.
The large number of candidates keeps the production costs lower than than they would be for individual candidates hiring their own consultants, Ullman said. Production crews provide the candidates with a choice of three versions of their video, ranging from two minutes to 15 seconds. The ads can be aired digitally and on broadcast television. Currently, Democratic House candidate Martha Shafer is using one of the One Vote ads on TV in her campaign against incumbent Rep. John Faircloth, Ullman said.
One Vote at a Time has spent about $60,000 so far on production of ads in North Carolina, according to state election records. The North Carolina One Vote PAC has received about $48,000 from joint fundraising with a related entity, the One Vote at a Time Victory Fund.
Mills welcomed the help but says more so she was impressed by Ullman’s approach, humanizing the issues without attacking — or even mentioning — her opponent. Mills’ two-minute video, pushed on social media, focused on her own struggle with breast cancer while connecting to the larger issue of adequate health care.
“You get a heartfelt conversation with someone who has gone through a very serious medical situation,” Mills said. “Clearly, I have empathy for other individuals in such a situation and the passion to fix it so people have access to health care.”
Outside funds also help GOP
McInnis, meanwhile, benefits from traditional, business-oriented national political action committees, along with funding from state party money. Mills’ out-of-state money is overwhelmingly from individuals. And while she might have been worried about raising enough money early on, Mills has caught up to McInnis in overall receipts.
Both candidates have accumulated six-figure campaign funds, making theirs one of the more expensive state legislative races this year. She has raised $440,703 while McInnis has raised $474,327.
The NC Democratic Party raised $6.5 million in the third quarter of this year, with about $3 million of that coming from individual donors, The NC Insider reported. The NC GOP raised $4.7 million during the same period, with $506,000 coming from individuals, and NC Senate Republican leaders’ group, the Senate Majority Fund, added another $3 million in fundraising with $328,000 coming from individuals.
The rest of the groups’ money came from PACs and other committees.
Republicans were swept into office in North Carolina and other states in 2010 aided in part by Supreme Court rulings that created super PACs with the ability to raise and spend unlimited money to help or harm candidates, often in conjunction with nonprofit groups funded by anonymous donors. An analysis in The Washington Post last year explored the extent of the benefit to GOP-controlled legislatures.
Big money is now helping both parties, and this year’s fundraising is prelude to an election that Democrats have been predicting will result in a “blue wave.” North Carolina Republicans have acknowledged that concern but say they expect the outcome won’t be as devastating to GOP incumbents as has been predicted, thanks in part to an aggressive knock-on-doors campaign.
“There’s no doubt we are facing an onslaught of money,” state GOP Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse said in an interview. “They are bankrolling a lot of campaigns. We are going to be nationally outspent by out-of-state, left-wing interest groups like Hollywood and the abortion providers.”
How it will all play out in a newly competitive district remains to be seen. Legislators redrew it last year to balance three strongly Democratic counties — Anson, Richmond and Scotland — with a solid Republican Moore County. There are a significant share of unaffiliated voters in all four counties and their allegiances are unknown.
McInnis defeated the incumbent in 2014 by fewer than 2,000 votes, then won re-election with a strong 64 percent of the vote. State Republican leaders have been putting money into McInnis’ re-election, and so have some of the country’s most powerful political action committees: representing General Motors, the National Rifle Association and Weyerhaeuser among others.
But McInnis has not been tested in Moore County against a Democratic opponent. He fought a bitter primary against Whispering Pines Mayor Michelle Lexo, which divided Republicans. Mailers financed by the NC Senate Majority Fund and three business-oriented political committees were the subject of two complaints Lexo’s campaign filed with the state alleging false statements on campaign literature and improper coordination with the PACs.
McInnis denies the accusations, according to The Pilot newspaper. The state Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement has not taken action on the complaints.
The Senate Majority Fund has spent about $176,000 on direct mail benefiting McInnis, records show.
In the general election contest McInnis’ mailers portrayed Mills as a “New York liberal.” She is from Chicago and has lived in Moore County since 2006.
After initially agreeing to an interview for this story, McInnis did not return subsequent phone calls nor respond to a request made through the Senate GOP organization. He is a professional auctioneer who grew up in Richmond County; his wife is a retired Richmond County teacher. On his website, McInnis touts his record on deregulation and improving opportunities for education.
Mills practiced law in Illinois but has not sought a license in North Carolina. She serves on the board of a family resource center in the northern Moore town of Robbins and is a trustee at Sand Hills Community College.
Her husband, Stuart, was a partner with an international law firm, and now heads a literacy program. He has family ties in the Carolinas. The couple moved to Pinehurst from London in 2006.
An N&O look at out-of-state contributions to legislative campaigns shows most of it goes to key Republican lawmakers. The exceptions are Democratic Senate candidate Wiley Nickel ($52,223) and House Democratic candidate Steven Buccini ($41,042), the only Democrats in the top 10. The contributions top out at $185,300 to Senate leader Phil Berger and $180,350 to House Speaker Tim Moore.
The top contributors represents the insurance industry, electric utilities, pharmaceuticals, airlines, Federal Express and lawyers and lobbyists.
Of the money in the first half of the year that went to Rep. Jason Saine, 24.4 percent of it was from out of state. Twenty-nine percent of Buccini’s out-of-state contributions were out of state, followed by 17 percent of Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown’s, and almost 17 percent of Rep. Nelson Dollar’s.
Here’s a look at some of the sources of out-of-state funding that is going to candidates for state-level offices and constitutional amendments:
▪ NC Voter ID: This new committee filed with the state early in October and reported no financial transactions for two weeks, when it suddenly had $920,000 in its coffers. Most of the money came from the Republican State Leadership Committee, a Washington-based group that works to elect down ballot, state-level Republicans. NC Voter ID used that money on TV ads supporting Republican senators and opposing their Democratic challengers.
Fair Judges, a committee that hasn’t been active since it formed in 2016 to support Justice Bob Edmunds’ unsuccessful re-election to the Supreme Court, contributed $20,000 of that amount to NC Voter ID.
The treasurer for NC Voter ID, Collin McMichael, is also treasurer for the NC House Republican Campaign Committee, and has ties to Carolina Leadership Coalition, a nonprofit organization that works to elect state House Republicans.
▪ Carolina Leadership Coalition: A filing last week indicates it has spent $228,000 on digital ads and mailers supporting the tax cap amendment on the November ballot. It was formed in 2016 to support GOP House candidates. The state Democratic Party filed a complaint against this group contending it was illegally coordinating polling, advertising and research with candidates and failing to report finances. It contends it isn’t required to make those disclosures.
▪ League of Conservation Voters: This national organization chipped in $900,000 to its North Carolina chapter’s independent committee, Conservation Votes PAC. The state chapter says the $1.3 million it has raised is unprecedented. The money will go to support environment-friendly candidates in six key state House races, including Terence Everitt’s challenge to Republican Rep. Chris Malone of Wake Forest.
▪ Emily’s List: It has spent $36,000 on 12 candidates. It is a PAC working to elect female Democratic candidates who support abortion rights.
▪ Lillian’s List: Another PAC that backs progressive women running for office who support abortion rights, it has contributed to dozens of female candidates and has spent about $184,000 in North Carolina through the third quarter.
▪ Koch Industries PAC: It has spent $40,000 on 19 GOP state candidates in the third quarter. The multinational corporation based in Kansas manufactures, refines and distributes energy and chemical products. The PAC and the founding Koch brothers have spent millions of dollars helping elect candidates who match their free-market philosophy. It has long had a presence in North Carolina politics, which includes a state chapter of its Americans for Prosperity.
▪ N.C. Citizens for Protecting our Schools: Reports receiving last week $3.3 million from a Washington-based nonprofit group called State Engagement Fund. The Center for Public Integrity says it is mostly funded by the national teachers’ union and the left-leaning America Votes. It describes itself in federal filings as a public policy, grassroots organizing and communications strategies organization. It is a nonprofit focused on education as well as an equitable economy, a clean environment and fair courts. It is using the money to buy TV and radio ads opposing the tax cap amendment.
▪ N.C. Families First: It spent about $1 million in the third quarter opposing Republican candidates. The state Republican Party filed a complaint against N.C. Supreme Court Democratic candidate Anita Earls over an ad her campaign produced and posted online that Families First broadcast. The attorney for Families First said using publicly posted materials didn’t amount to prohibited coordination with the Earls campaign.
▪ PACRONYM: This Washington-based super PAC recently reported giving $345,000 to the liberal Progress NC Action independent expenditure PAC, which made $485,320 of independent expenditures in 10 legislative districts with Democratic challengers. Progress NC Action IE PAC reports receiving $150,000 from the Future Now Fund based in Washington, which the Center for Public Integrity identifies as a hybrid super PAC and regular PAC. Progress says it has spent almost $500,000 on digital advertising. Like One Vote at a Time, the Future Now Fund is working to get Democrats elected to state legislatures, including here in North Carolina.