McConnell-aligned Super PAC behind ads supporting liberal candidate in North Carolina Senate race


NORTH CAROLINA (CNN) — A mysterious PAC that emerged earlier this year in the US Senate race in North Carolina and propped up insurgent Democratic State Sen. Erica Smith in the Democratic primary was backed by a group aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Federal Election Commission filing reveals.

The Senate Leadership Fund funneled nearly $3 million into the Faith and Power PAC, according to the FEC filing. They spent more than $2.4 million of it on a well-known media buyer Neylan and Partners, which has been affiliated with Republican campaigns in the past. The ads in support of Smith began appearing in the state in recent weeks ahead of the March 3 primary in North Carolina and touted her support for liberal policies like “Medicare for All” and the “Green New Deal.”

“Who’s the Democrat for US Senate endorsed by progressives and unions? Erica Smith,” the ad’s narrator said. “Who’s got the courage to vote for ‘Medicare for All’? Erica Smith. The number one supporter of the Green New Deal? Erica Smith again.”

Smith, a relatively unknown state senator who has reported just around $200,000 in her own campaign coffers, is running against veteran and former state senator Cal Cunningham who won the endorsement of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and has been considered as a serious challenger to incumbent Republican Sen. Thom Tillis. Cunningham lost a Democratic primary in 2010 against Elaine Marshall.

Cunningham’s campaign spokeswoman Rachel Petri tweeted that it was “hilarious that Washington GOP is patting itself on the back for its $3 million admission that @SenThomTillis is their weakest incumbent and they don’t want him to run against @CalforNC.”

The move is straight from past Senate-cycle playbooks. In 2014 when then-Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, invested money to elevate Todd Akin in the Republican primary in her state. Akin eventually went on to be the nominee and lost the race against McCaskill after making inartful and inaccurate comments about “legitimate rape.”

The Faith and Power PAC had raised eyebrows of Democrats in the state and in Washington who had grown worried about the sheer amount of money that was pouring in from the mystery group. The ads in the state sought to introduce voters to Smith, but the Senate Leadership Fund says it forced Democrats to spend early to defend Cunningham and ensure he won the nomination in a race that hadn’t been competitive up to that point.

“We stole a page out of Chuck Schumer’s playbook, and it’s been more successful than we could have imagined. Democrats are burning cash in a $13 million rescue mission for Cal Cunningham, who has proven to be a lackluster candidate with less money in the bank today than the beginning of the year,” said Senate Leadership Fund President Steven Law.

“If you add in the fact that Cunningham felt pressured to say he would support Bernie Sanders, I’d call this an unqualified success. We got a lot more for our money than when Democrats spent millions in Thom Tillis’ primary six years ago.”

North Carolina is crucial for Democrats hoping to retake the Senate in 2020. Democrats need to have a net win of four seats to win back the majority and are investing heavily in Arizona, Colorado, Maine, North Carolina and Georgia.