In North Carolina's last two elections, Republicans seeking state office have been big winners in the outside political spending wars.

As Facing South documented, in 2012 GOP candidates enjoyed a 2-to-1 advantage among the top 10 super PACs and other outside groups channeling money into North Carolina state races. In 2010, the year Republicans won historic victories in the General Assembly, outside groups benefited GOP legislative candidates by a 10-to-1 margin.

In 2014, Democratic-leaning groups in North Carolina appear to be ramping up their independent political network, hoping to narrow or erase the outside spending gap in state politics. A look into these groups' spending hints at whether they are up for the task. 

Two groups are currently leading the liberal-leaning election spending network. One is N.C. Families First, a 527 super PAC-style group that's able to raise and spend unlimited money on TV ads and other election-related purposes as long as it’s not coordinated with a candidate.

According to a Facing South/Institute for Southern Studies analysis of Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reports, N.C. Families First has reserved nearly $615,000 worth of TV ad space in the Raleigh area, set to begin airing on Oct. 7.

The group began in October 2011 under a different name, N.C. Citizens for Progress. That 527 organization spent more than $2.6 million opposing GOP gubernatorial candidate Pat McCrory the following year. In 2012, N.C. Citizens for Progress was largely backed by two groups in Washington, D.C.: the Democratic Governors Association, which contributed more than $2.9 million, and the National Education Association Advocacy Fund, which contributed more than $413,000.

While the ad buys are documented on TV station reports, the details of the spending aren't yet available at the N.C. State Board of Elections because of a gap in state reporting requirements. One report that has been submitted to the state board is for a $13,000 ad campaign targeting Republican Rep. Mike Stone; it accuses the N.C. House District 51 lawmaker of accepting money from a gambling executive who was indicted on felony charges and of not returning it. In 2012, Stone's successful election bid benefited from spending from the North Carolina Chamber's independent spending arm and Americans for Prosperity, and he was opposed by the liberal-leaning 527 group Common Sense Matters.

The other Democratic-leaning group active in state politics this year also has its roots in 2012: Aim Higher Now. The group is an offshoot of N.C. Citizens for Protecting Our Schools, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit active in the last election cycle.

A Facing South analysis of FCC reports reveals that the group has booked more than $211,000 in TV ads at WLOS in Asheville. The ad attacks Asheville-area state representatives Tim Moffitt, Nathan Ramsey, and Michele Presnell for supporting tax breaks for the rich while cutting education funding. So far, $79,000 of the group's ad purchases are documented in State Board of Elections reports.

Protecting Our Schools spent nearly $280,000 in 2012 supporting gubernatorial candidate Walter Dalton, various Democratic House and Senate candidates, and Supreme Court candidate Sam Ervin, with funding from the National Education Association (NEA), N.C. Advocates for Justice (an association of trial attorneys), and the N.C. Futures Action Fund.  This year, the NEA and N.C. Futures have chipped in again, as well as the America Votes Action Fund.

N.C. Futures is a 501(c)(4) group that lists Raleigh businessman Dean Debnam as its director. This year it has given $105,000 to Families First and $35,000 to N.C. Citizens for Protecting Our Schools. State election board reports show that Debnam -- the head of Public Policy Polling and CEO of Workplace Options, an employee benefits provider -- contributed $50,000 to Families First in September 2014.

N.C. Citizens for Protecting Our Schools isn't just spending money on advertising -- it's also funneling money to the other Democratic-leaning group, Families First. N.C. Citizens for Protecting Our Schools has given $965,000 to Families First this election cycle, compared to just $50,000 donated to Common Sense Matters in 2012.

Another key player in this network of Democratic-leaning groups is Real Facts NC, a 501(c)(4) that has given Families First $300,000 this year.

Below is a chart detailing the money flowing between these groups during the last two election cycles (click on it for a larger version):

Another set of groups opposing state Republicans in 2014 are focused on hot-button environmental issues. Since March, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Southern Environmental Law Center have run ads criticizing the records of six Republican lawmakers for their support of hydraulic fracturing. In return, the American Petroleum Institute has spent over $350,000 on radio ads in support of seven of the GOP legislators up for re-election this year.

While the full scope of outside spending won't be known until the final reports are submitted after the election, filings at the state election board show that independent groups have already spent more than $3 million -- a figure that doesn’t include many of the TV ad buys described above. Still, with liberal-leaning, closely-related groups in high gear this year, conservative-leaning groups have outspent their liberal-leaning counterparts 2-to-1.

For detailed outside spending information, visit FollowNCMoney.org, a project of the Institute for Southern Studies and Facing South.