Outside groups spend over $2 million so far on pivotal N.C. Supreme Court race

A handful of outside political spending groups have invested more than $2 million in a North Carolina Supreme Court race that's critical for the state's future. Business interests are backing incumbent Republican Justice Bob Edmunds (right), while liberal groups are lining up behind Democratic challenger Mike Morgan (left).

This year's race for one of seven seats on the North Carolina Supreme Court, which pits incumbent Republican Justice Bob Edmunds against Democratic Superior Court Judge Michael Morgan and will determine the court's partisan balance, was expected to draw a lot of outside money. The latest reports show that the spending is well underway.

With less than two weeks until Election Day, the total amount of outside spending in the race — that is, by groups operating independently of the campaigns — is close to $2.2 million. That's far more than the roughly $310,000 the candidates' campaigns have spent on TV and radio advertising, according to State Board of Elections reports and a new analysis of Federal Communications Commission reports by the Brennan Center for Justice.

The outside spending on the race so far has already surpassed the $1.9 million total spent on four N.C. Supreme Court races in 2014 and is nearing the $2.9 million total spent on the 2012 race for Republican Justice Paul Newby's seat. This follows a general pattern of increased political spending since 2010, when the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision and another federal court ruling lifted limits on corporate money in elections. 

Outside groups began spending heavily on the N.C. Supreme Court race in the run-up to the May primary, when the pro-business N.C. Chamber of Commerce shelled out nearly $500,000 on TV ads supporting Edmunds. This month the Chamber launched a new ad, again backing Edmunds. It spent $504,000 on the ad as of Oct. 26, according to the Brennan Center. The TV spot, which touts Edmunds as tough on crime, is airing statewide.

The N.C. Chamber, which has spent the most of any outside group on the race so far, and its independent political spending arm, the N.C. Chamber IE, together are a major force in North Carolina elections, having spent a combined total of over $2.2 million on state legislative and judicial races since 2012. In 2014, for example, the Chamber IE spent $345,000 supporting two conservative challengers to incumbent Supreme Court Justice Robin Hudson, who held on to her seat.

While the N.C. Chamber isn't required to disclose its donors, N.C. Chamber IE is. Among its top contributors this election cycle are energy giants Koch Industries and Piedmont Natural Gas, and its board includes executives from companies such as health insurer Blue Cross Blue Shield and tobacco giant Reynolds American.

Liberal groups also weigh in

The state Supreme Court race has also drawn significant spending from N.C. Families First, a left-leaning super PAC that supports redistricting reform, increased public education funding, raising the minimum wage and expanding Medicaid.

N.C. Families First has paid nearly $922,000 so far for an ad against Edmunds focusing on a snake-like congressional district drawn by state legislators that was ruled an unconstitutional racial gerrymander by a federal court in February. The ad criticizes Edmunds for writing the state Supreme Court's opinion upholding the district. The group is also spending heavily against vulnerable incumbent Republican state legislators, as it did in 2014.

N.C. Families First has reported receiving $1.55 million earmarked for the Supreme Court race, which may indicate the total it plans to spend backing Morgan. In turn, the group has received $450,000 from the Democratic Governors Association super PAC as well as funding from three liberal-leaning "social welfare" nonprofits: nearly $1.5 million from N.C. Citizens for Protecting Our Schools, which is dedicated to increased public education funding; almost $1.1 million from Make N.C. First, which promotes environmental protection and affordable health care and housing; and $500,000 from Real Facts N.C., which focuses on disseminating information critical of Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and GOP state legislators.

Four other outside groups have also reported spending on the high court race:

* A shadowy Raleigh-based group called Fair Judges that was established in September has begun spending in favor of Edmunds, according to new FCC reports from two TV stations in Wilmington and Charlotte. The contracts list a total of over $197,000 in ad buys through Nov. 8. State Board of Elections reports that surfaced this week show the group received $125,000 from Medical Mutual Insurance Co. and $50,000 from tobacco giant Reynolds American.

* Color of Change PAC, the independent expenditure arm of the Oakland, California-based racial justice organization Color of Change, has made a $100,000 TV ad buy, presumably in favor of Morgan, according to a State Board of Elections Board report. The group has also spent over $15,000 on radio spots, according to the Brennan Center. Among the PAC's contributors are Make N.C. First and billionaire liberal mega-donor George Soros.

* Action N.C., a Durham-based social welfare nonprofit established "to confront and reduce the root causes of poverty, underdevelopment, and social and economic inequality," has spent close to $3,800 on get-out-the-vote efforts supporting Morgan. It received over $130,000 this month from Our Future PAC, a Washington, D.C.-based super PAC launched this year by several unions.

* Also involved in the race is Advance N.C., a shadowy group that has reported spending $175 on door hangers supporting Morgan, according to a report filed with the N.C. State Board of Elections.

The outcome of the race will have major implications for the state's future. In recent years, the N.C. Supreme Court has ruled on critical issues such as voting districts, elections law, coal ash and charter schools.