RALEIGH, N.C. -- A political committee linked to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is funding ads and other campaign materials designed to meddle in North Carolina's Democratic Senate primary, the group acknowledged on Friday.
Campaign finance documents filed late Thursday show the Faith and Power PAC receiving all of its money so far — $2.95 million — from the Senate Leadership Fund, which is connected to the Kentucky Republican and designed to help the GOP retain its majority in the chamber.
The PAC, which was just created last month, has run ads that appear to be aimed at boosting the fortunes of state Sen. Erica Smith at the expense of former state Sen. Cal Cunningham, a favorite of the party establishment. Cunningham was endorsed months ago by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Cunningham's campaign has decidedly outraised Smith so far.
The DSCC is targeting a handful of seats to retake the Senate, including the one held by North Carolina Republican incumbent Thom Tillis.
The Faith and Power PAC, which is linked to a private mailbox in Jacksonville, North Carolina, began running an ad this month urging voters in the March 3 Democratic primary to back Smith, citing her support for a form of “Medicare for All” and the Green New Deal. Early in-person voting for the primary began Feb. 13.
A more recent commercial from the PAC also attempts to portray Cunningham as too moderate on gun and LGBT issues. Cunningham started running a response commercial that referred to “deceptive ads" that are “just not true.” Cunningham's campaign said he still differs from Smith by opposing Medicare for All and the Green New Deal.
Before campaign reports were filed on Thursday, Democrats already were convinced the PAC's money originated from Republicans, who were trying to force Cunningham or his allies to spend more money helping him win. The PAC's ad buyer and bank already were linked to GOP and conservative causes.
Senate Leadership Fund President Steven Law, a former McConnell chief of staff, sought to portray the contributions as a new twist on an old effort by Democrats to interfere in Republican Senate primaries. Six years ago, the campaign of then-Sen. Kay Hagan, a Democrat, spent money against Tillis on mailers while he tried to win his crowded primary. The Senate Majority PAC, linked to then-Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, ran primary TV ads attacking Tillis for troubles in his office while he was state House speaker.
“We stole a page out of (Senate Minority Leader) Chuck Schumer’s playbook, and it’s been more successful than we could have imagined," Law said in a statement Friday. "We got a lot more for our money than when Democrats spent millions in Thom Tillis’ primary six years ago.”
Outside groups, including the DSCC, and Cunningham's committee have reported spending over $10 million to date in support of Cunningham's candidacy, according to campaign finance filings.
Cunningham and Smith already had criticized the interference. Cunningham and his allies said Friday the revelation of the involvement of Senate Republicans is more proof that they are worried about the race.
McConnell “meddled in our state’s election to try to mislead voters, and it’s clear why -- he knows Thom Tillis has failed North Carolinians by every measure and he’s terrified to face me in November,” Cunningham said in a release. ”I’ve got a message for McConnell and his allies -- your scheme won’t work and I’ll see you in November.”
Smith tweeted: "We have the support of the people, and I am here to serve the people not the PACs." Her campaign added Friday evening: “Black women are not chess pawns for D.C. committees, this is a campaign made up of thousands of supporters counting on Erica's leadership.” Smith is African American.
Other politically-minded groups have attempted to influence the Senate primaries of competing parties.
A Democratic-backed group ran ads in 2010 that featured comments by a leading contender for Nevada’s Senate GOP nomination suggesting that people could barter for health care with chickens. Sue Lowden eventually lost her bid and Republicans nominated Sharron Angle, a tea party conservative, who lost the election to Reid. The group that ran the ads, Patriot Majority, was headed by a former press secretary for Reid.
The conservative Club for Growth said in 2016 it had bought an ad touting liberal Rep. Alan Grayson of Florida, who ultimately lost the Democratic Senate primary to a more moderate opponent.
Tillis' campaign said it had no knowledge of the Faith and Power PAC and its structure except through news reports, according to a spokesman.
The campaign has attempted to link both Cunningham and Smith to Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, pointing to comments the two have made saying they'll support whoever their party's nominee will be.
The primary has “already highlighted that there is no difference between his policies and the radical, liberal agenda of the national Democratic party,” Tillis campaign spokesman Andrew Romeo said. Despite the attempts to link Cunningham to Sanders, the Faith and Power PAC ads appear to more closely align the policies backed by Sanders and Elizabeth Warren to Smith.
Five people are running for the Senate Democratic nomination. Tillis also is in a primary against three lesser-known rivals.
Associated Press writer Alan Fram in Washington contributed to this report.