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In 2012, NC Campaigns Heat Up Earlier Than Usual

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(Photo by Brian Gomsak/Getty Images)

(Photo by Brian Gomsak/Getty Images)

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The final weeks of statewide general elections in North Carolina are usually marked by perceived shadowy third-party groups spending big money to soak the airwaves with television commercials and campaigns suing or threatening to sue over an ad that strikes a nerve.

That all got a head start in 2012.

The governor’s race didn’t let up after the May 8 primary christened Democratic Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton and Republican Pat McCrory as nominees. National governors’ groups already have been recognized for more than $1.4 million in TV ads designed to negatively portray the opposing candidate.

McCrory’s campaign and political committees favoring Dalton filed competing lawsuits over one commercial last week. McCrory, the former Charlotte mayor, called the ad “garbage.” Dalton, while pointing out the ad wasn’t produced by his campaign, retorted the commercial “checks out by fact pretty well.”

Add the millions of dollars in presidential ads already being dropped on North Carolina and loosened campaign finance restrictions nationwide, and the old political adage that Labor Day marks the beginning of the fall political season sounds old-fashioned.

Make that Memorial Day.

“In the past, there’s been a little hiatus after the primaries,” said Carter Wrenn, a Republican campaign consultant who worked for years with the late U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms’ political organization. This year, he added, “they just put the pedal to the metal.”

The early overall surge in television advertising in North Carolina is attributed to the state being considered competitive again in the presidential race. President Barack Obama narrowly won in North Carolina in 2008, ending a GOP winning streak dating to 1980. Holding the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte highlights Obama’s interest in retaining North Carolina’s 15 electoral votes.

Wrenn said North Carolina didn’t become a battleground state until later in the 2008 election season. This time, he said, “we’re kind of at a different status then we’ve ever been before.”

North Carolina TV viewers already are hearing from the campaigns of Obama and presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney, as well as from a new kind of political action committee. The so-called “super PAC,” born following a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, can receive unlimited amounts of money from corporations and individuals.

In May, the Obama campaign launched a $25 million ad buy running in North Carolina and six other states. The GOP-leading super PAC Crossroads GPS, which is advertising against Obama in North Carolina and nine other states, quickly matched that amount. The Romney campaign also said it was spending $1.3 million in four states, including North Carolina, on a TV ad.

The Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” ruling will make TVs even more congested with political commercials than they would have been, said Gene Nichol, a professor at the University of North Carolina law school.

“We’re all going to become so sick of watching TV and the commercials that spew forth that people will just beg for the election to be over,” said Nichol, a former Democratic U.S. Senate candidate in Colorado.

Eight statewide or congressional primary runoffs set for July 17 will keep politics in the news. Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue’s decision not to seek re-election also has intensified the campaign to succeed her.

The Republican Governors Association spent $5.6 million in 2008 working unsuccessfully for McCrory to defeat Perdue, but it didn’t start spending that year until September. This year, it got on the air a week after the primary and began to label Dalton as Perdue’s “right-hand man.”

Two RGA ads have tried to join Dalton and Perdue at the hip and highlight their support for raising the sales tax by three-quarters of a cent. The sales tax revenue would go to public education.

As of last week, the RGA had spent $1.3 million in North Carolina, according to campaign finance reports. More than $1 million was for TV spots, RGA spokesman Mike Schrimpf said.

“North Carolina is one of our most important pickup opportunities,” Schrimpf said Friday.

On the day the RGA ran its first ad, the Democratic Governors Association gave $1 million to North Carolina Citizens for Progress. The Raleigh-based independent political group spent more than $430,000 on commercials questioning McCrory’s ethics. They suggest McCrory lobbied for Charlotte-based real estate and lending business Tree.com while mayor. McCrory is now on the Tree.com board and has received fees and stock options.

McCrory pounced on N.C. Citizens for Progress last week, and his lawyers sent threatening letters to TV stations running a commercial they say is false. McCrory has never been a registered lobbyist for Tree.com. N.C. Citizens for Progress says the ad is factual.

The DGA and N.C. Citizens sued McCrory and his campaign committee and threatened to depose McCrory before November. McCrory’s campaign began litigation against DGA and N.C. Citizens.

Bob Hall, executive director of the campaign finance group Democracy North Carolina, said organizations like the DGA, RGA and N.C. Citizens have more leeway since the Citizens United ruling to directly support or oppose candidates in television ads. They also have a greater pool of donors compared to 2008. The two candidates have no direct way to rein in the outside groups.

Hall said the early influx of ads is an early taste for voters until Election Day: “This is the harbinger of what’s to come.”

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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