About one-fourth of the outside players this election cycle are so-called “dark money” groups, entities that aren't required to disclose their donors.
The flood of outside groups is not a surprise to experts in North Carolina, a purple state where big donors and groups have experimented with outside money since 2010. That year, Art Pope, a billionaire former legislator who later became state budget director, pushed a coordinated strategy with such groups that helped turn the statehouse in Republicans’ favor, gaining a net total of 11 seats in the Senate and 15 in the House.
“These campaigns were very successful, and because of that success, it became a new mode of operation,” said Bob Hall, the executive director of Democracy North Carolina, a voting rights nonprofit.
Of the North Carolina gubernatorial ads from outside groups, 96 percent had a negative tone attacking one of the candidates, according to Kantar Media/CMAG.
“Outside groups are helpful because candidates themselves are more reluctant to put out attack ads, because that’s basically saying ‘Yes, I endorse this attack on someone else,’ instead of taking the moral high ground,” Vandewalker said. “It’s much easier to have groups with no accountability pop up for that purpose.”
Environmental groups have latched onto this strategy, decrying so-called cozy relationships between McCrory and the Charlotte-based electric and gas giant Duke Energy.
For 29 years, McCrory worked for the state’s largest utility, an economic powerhouse that has been steeped in controversy after a devastating coal ash spill in 2014. And Duke Energy is one of the top donors to McCrory's biggest advertising supporter, the Republican Governors Association, which seeks to elect GOP governors nationwide. (Duke Energy has also contributed to the Democratic Governors Association but has given the RGA three times more money in the past five years, according to Internal Revenue Service records.)
The North Carolina Environmental Partnership, a coalition of eight environmental groups including the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Southern Environmental Law Center, spent the most money on ads in North Carolina, $1.6 million so far, that slammed McCrory for trying to cut solar energy use, endangering drinking water and those Duke Energy connections.
“Tying Gov. McCrory to Duke Energy — one of the state's largest employers — is something far-left environmental groups have been trying to do since the last election, but the reality is that he has been the toughest governor on Duke Energy,” said Ricky Diaz, a spokesman for McCrory’s campaign.
Meanwhile the Durham-based North Carolina Waste Awareness & Reduction Network urged Cooper to change Duke Energy’s corporate charter in a series of TV ads and is running an online campaign calling on voters to force the candidates to stand up to the energy giant.