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Finance reports shed light on WNC’s US representatives’ campaigns on eve of election season

It’s no secret that winning a seat in Congress takes money—big money. But odds are you’ve never been to a political fundraiser, let alone donated to a candidate.

So how did U.S. Rep. Patrick McHenry, a five-term Republican congressman representing North Carolina’s 10th District, attract more than $675,000 in campaign cash last year?

And where did the $1.8 million padding 5th District Republican U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx‘s re-election war chest come from?

Less than 10 percent of Americans are willing to part ways with hard-earned cash in order to support candidates running for federal office, research from the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics shows. And an even fewer amount of voters are generous enough to give away sums in excess of $200—the minimum amount required for contributions to be itemized by the Federal Election Commission and become public record.

So with only two years spanning between elections, and the average amount spent by winners of U.S. House elections topping $1.4 million in 2010, it’s no wonder those hoping to keep seats in Congress are quick to accept funds from sources lying far outside district lines.

U.S. Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC) represents the 10th District

The sources of contributions can be revealing, and much of the information is available for public review. And although disclosures won’t show anything to remotely suggest vote buying, the lists of donors offer a clear sign of who cares about the role of lawmakers in Western North Carolina — and who’s willing to finance efforts to help them keep their seats.

“The public has a right to know where the money comes from that candidates use, and it often gives them a clue about the special interest groups that think they will benefit by getting a person elected or re-elected,” said Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina, in an interview with Carolina Public Press. “It’s good for voters to see what the fingerprints of the donations mean and find out if there’s a pattern that illustrates how a legislator may be more accountable to big money interests rather than the interests of voters.”

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U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) represents the 5th District, which includes Boone and Watauga County

This year, all three of Western North Carolina’s representatives are incumbents up for re-election.

U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows, a Republican who represents the 11th District, is seeking to retain his seat for the first time. Meadows finished the 2013 cycle having raised more than $166,000, with a total of nearly 75 percent of the figure coming from political action committees—special interest groups that funnel money from employees or members of an organization into the campaign coffers of candidates.

Without support from PACs, Meadows’ fundraising lagged behind the typical hauls of his fellow freshmen members. According to FEC records, the congressman recorded only 27 itemized contributions from supportive individuals last year—an average of about two contributions in excess of $200 from individuals per month.

U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) represents the 11th District.

But despite any impressions the figure may give, it likely won’t be much of an issue as November draws near.

“Meadows appears to be in a safe district, and state folks and loyalists tend to invest money strategically,” Chris Cooper, a professor of political science and public affairs at Western Carolina University, said. “He hasn’t raised a lot of money yet because he hasn’t had to.”

The top contributing PAC to Meadows’ campaign is Every Republican is Crucial, a group which spent more than $3.1 million last year on efforts to secure seats for GOP incumbents and candidates. But not far behind the partisan group are others with a vested interest in the dealings of the House committees Meadows serves on, which include Transportation and Infrastructure, Government Oversight and Reform, and Foreign Affairs.

Last year, the congressman accepted more than $21,000 in contributions from groups representing railroad and air transport industries, records show.

The pattern of donor groups aligning with committee assignments of members also proves true for those elected to represent Meadows’ neighboring districts.

Foxx, who raised more than $641,000 from donors last year, accepted more than $51,450 of her haul from education-focused individuals and groups. She sits on the House Education and Workforce Committee and chairs the subcommittee on higher education. The largest contributor to her campaign was Corinthian Colleges, a for-profit, post-secondary education company which offers online courses. In all, the group donated $16,500 to the congresswoman.

Last September, Foxx traveled to California to pay a visit to one of the school’s campuses.

McHenry, who serves on the House Financial Services Committee, drew nearly $200,000 from individuals and groups representing finance and credit companies, commercial banks, insurance companies, securities and investment agencies and accountants, according to analyses by the Center for Responsive Politics.

The total, along with other PAC contributions, made up for 51 percent of donations made to McHenry’s campaign last year.

“Many groups look at it as business investment,” Hall said, referring to the array of outside groups. “If a member is on a certain committee, the groups whose economic future depends on decisions made by that committee are going to put a lot of money into the politicians.”

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Despite the stream of money flowing outside their districts, Foxx, McHenry and Meadows all showed support from local industries last year as well.

For McHenry, whose district includes downtown Asheville, local support manifested itself in contributions from members of the city’s brewing community. Records show a $5,000 contribution from Wicked Weed Brewing and smaller individual donations from other Asheville-area brewers. In the past year, McHenry has toured both breweries, praising their impact as small businesses.

In 2013, the congressman was also named vice chairman of the House Small Brewers Caucus, and he introduced a bill to help brewers.

Cooper said the contributions from brewers, along with other local businesses, could be interpreted as an act of friendly support rather than an attempt to buy influence in Congress.

“Obviously brewing isn’t an industry that people in general would associate with the Republican party,” he said. “But I think that folks would see that it’s easier to have a friend in Congress than an enemy.”

Other local companies donating to candidates include H&K Research, a Hickory-based producer of gelcoats which gave $10,400 and $5,200 to McHenry and Foxx, respectively. Alex Lee Inc., a food distributor in Hickory, also made similar donations to McHenry and Foxx.

With roughly six months remaining tip this year’s mid-terms, don’t expect lawmakers to let up on the fundraising any time soon.

The next round of quarterly reports from the Federal Election Commission will be released in April, revealing a whole new set of of details regarding where their money comes from.

James Harrison

James Harrison is a contributing reporter with Carolina Public Press. Reach him at jharrison@carolinapublicpress.org.

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