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Control of the North Carolina General Assembly, and thus a hand in the once-a-decade redraw of congressional and state legislative maps, may come down to a handful of state Senate races.

And the money aimed at those races shows it.

Since July, candidates in the four most competitive state Senate races have raised a combined total of more than $9.2 million, more than 20% of the total of all legislative campaigns have raised in the third quarter, according to North Carolina State Board of Elections data as of Friday. 

In the third quarter of 2018, the most expensive Senate races brought in less than half that. 

That total does not include expenditures by independent groups on behalf of these campaigns without passing through campaign committee coffers.

Across the board, Democrats outraised Republicans in legislative races by some $3.2 million, state numbers show. Much of Democrats’ total passed through layers of state and national Democratic committees, indicating outside forces are also contributing to the effort to swing the state blue up and down the ballot

The North Carolina Democratic Party’s state committee, for example, brought in $15.3 million in the past four months, millions of which came from groups outside North Carolina. In turn, the committee gave some $4.2 million to other candidates and political committees.

Analyzing North Carolina’s campaign finance data can be difficult. Funding often flows through multiple committees before reaching its final destination, meaning some donations are counted more than once. 

Battle for control

Every two years, all of North Carolina’s 170 legislative seats are up for grabs — 120 seats in the House, 50 in the Senate. And every 10 years, after the census, control of redistricting is at stake.

A decade ago, Republicans swept North Carolina’s statehouse, giving them control over that powerful process, and they’ve held onto their legislative majority since then. 

Democrats don’t want that to happen again. 

Of those 170 seats in play, 97 lean Republican or Democrat by at least 10 percentage points, according to an analysis by the N.C. Free Enterprise Foundation (NCFREE). Just 33 races lean less than 5 points in either direction.

For Democrats to take the majority, they’ll need to net five more seats in the Senate and six in the House. Judging purely by ad dollars, the money suggests the Senate is more in play than the House. According to data from Kantar Media, a market research firm which tracks broadcast ad spending, some $6.9 million has been spent on N.C. Senate races, while $2.4 million has been spent on N.C. House races.

“A lot of these races are very safe, so the lion’s share of money is being spent in just these few that really can tip it,” said Mac McCorkle, a politics professor at the Duke University Sanford School of Public Policy.

The districts are a little less safe and slightly harder to predict because of court-mandated redistricting in 2019. As a result, not only is a great deal at stake, but substantial shifts might also be possible.

The million-dollar races

Four races in the Senate are key. They’re the most expensive legislative races, based on fundraising in only the latest quarter, and they’re all seats Democrats hope to flip blue. Those races, which are spread across the state, are Districts 1, 11, 24 and 31.

The most expensive is Senate District 31, in Davie County and parts of Forsyth County. Since January, Democrat Terri LeGrand, who raised more than any other legislative candidate this cycle, brought in $1.8 million. 

More than $900,000 of LeGrand’s total just this quarter came from the party’s Senate caucus, which is funded by political action committees like the Future Now Fund, Grassroots Victory PAC, the National Democratic Redistricting Committee PAC, Flippable and Emily’s List. 

Those five groups collectively reported contributions to the Democratic Party totaling some $4.1 million in the third quarter. 

LeGrand’s opponent, Republican Sen. Joyce Krawiec, has brought in some $1.2 million. Krawiec has held this seat since 2013, though it was a Republican-held district well before that. The district was redrawn in 2019, and Democrats are hoping the new map will give them an advantage.

Some believe control of the state Senate may come down to this seat.

More than 80% of $3 million raised in this race came in the last four months. 

In second place

Candidates for Senate District 24, which includes Alamance and Guilford counties, brought in more money in the last quarter than in any other race for the state House or Senate. 

Combined, Democrat JD Wooten and Republican Amy Galey brought in $2.6 million since the race heated up in recent months. 

Wooten has a slight fundraising advantage over Galey.

Just under $1.1 million of Wooten’s funding has come from the Democratic Party’s Senate caucus, which received funding from the state Democratic Party. Campaign finance records show he’s gotten more from that committee than any other candidate. 

Republican Sen. Rick Gunn previously held this seat. Gunn announced in 2019 he wouldn’t run for reelection, but it’s another district that’s historically been a Republican stronghold. Wooten ran against Gunn in 2018 and lost, but it was the first time this district looked competitive in the last decade. 

With District 31 leaning Republican by just 4 percentage points and District 24 leaning red by 5, according to NCFREE data, these two races have seen some of the most aggressive ad campaigns this cycle.

Candidates and outside groups spent an estimated $2.9 million on broadcast television ads in state Senate races — evenly split between District  31 and District 24 — in the Greensboro market, according to data through Oct. 28 from Kantar. In total, campaigns spent more than $9.3 million on legislative races throughout North Carolina. 

Biggest donors

In third place for the most expensive legislative race is Senate District 1, between Republican Sen. Bob Steinburg and Democrat Tess Judge. NCFREE gives Republicans just a 2-point advantage in the race for this seat, which is located along the North Carolina coast, and Judge’s campaign has attempted to capitalize on that. 

Her campaign has raised $1.3 million in the latest quarter, putting her third behind LeGrand and Wooten. Steinburg brought in just over $1 million. 

Senate District 11 is in fourth place in the latest quarter, with candidates Allen Wellons, a Democrat, and Rep. Lisa Stone Barnes, a Republican, bringing in a combined $1.7 million. Republicans have a 3-point advantage in this district, according to NCFREE. 

The district, which is currently held by Republican Sen. Rick Horner, encompasses Johnston and Nash Counties.

The most significant contributor to the state Democratic Party’s campaign committee — which reported some $20.1 million in receipts ahead of this election — is the North Carolina Democratic Leadership Committee. 

Nearly half of the leadership committee’s funding from the latest quarter — $4.2 million — came from the Democratic Action PAC, according to FEC data. The PAC’s largest donor is ActBlue, an online fundraiser for Democratic campaigns

Candidates can sign up for the platform and place “donate” links to their emails and website. ActBlue then transfers that money to the intended candidate or organization. The idea is to harness “the power of grassroots,” according to the ActBlue’s website. 

This story was jointly reported and edited by Laura Lee and Frank Taylor of Carolina Public Press; Ames Alexander of The Charlotte Observer; Tyler Dukes, Lucille Sherman and Jordan Schrader of The News & Observer; Nick Ochsner of WBTV; Emily Featherston of WECT; Travis Fain and Randall Kerr of WRAL, and Jason deBruyn of WUNC.

NC Watchdog Reporting Network

The NC Watchdog Reporting Network is a cooperative effort of investigative journalists representing seven news organizations across North Carolina. Participants include Carolina Public Press, the Charlotte Observer, the News and Observer, WBTV, WECT, WRAL and WUNC. Email CPP's news team at info@carolinapublicpress.org to contact the NC Watchdog Reporting Network.

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