- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 24, 2014

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - As the U.S. Senate campaign sears North Carolina TVs with commercials on the way to becoming the most expensive in the country, millions of dollars also have already gone for ads in this fall’s state government races.

Nearly $3.7 million has been spent so far during this two-year election cycle on television ads identifying candidates running for North Carolina state-level offices, according to a report from nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity released Wednesday. Millions of dollars more are likely to get spent in the weeks ahead.

Nearly all of the spending identified in the center’s review of advertising on cable and broadcast television stations through early September is attributed to efforts by outside groups to influence a state Supreme Court election and the General Assembly’s debates on the environment.

The center, using research from political ad tracker Kantar Media/CMAG, says the North Carolina Environmental Partnership has spent the most so far - about $1.7 million - to highlight last year’s votes of seven Republican lawmakers for fracking legislation.

The center also located $690,000 in TV ads credited to the Justice for All NC PAC. The group had run a commercial before the May primary attacking Supreme Court Associate Justice Robin Hudson for writing the dissenting opinion in a case in which the majority on the court upheld satellite monitoring of convicted child molesters.

Hudson was one of three candidates in the nonpartisan primary. She and another candidate advanced to the general election.

The Environmental Partnership includes eight conservation groups but is funded by two members, the Southern Environmental Law Center and Natural Resources Defense Council. It began running ads in March, the first of which identified Sens. Chad Barefoot, R-Wake; Ron Rabin, R-Harnett; and Wesley Meredith, R-Cumberland, as the “fracking crew” for voting for a bill to “fast-track” the emerging form of natural gas exploration.

According to the center, the partnership also ran “negative” ads identifying Sen. Trudy Wade, R-Guilford, and Reps. Tim Moffitt, R-Buncombe; Michele Presnell, R-Yancey; Mike Stone, R-Lee; and Jamie Boles, R-Moore.

The NRDC and Southern Environmental Law Center called the commercials “issue ads” designed to inform the public about environmental legislation during this year’s General Assembly session. They stopped airing ads with identified lawmakers this summer.

The report said the NRDC also separately spent $715,000 on ads criticizing Sen. Bill Cook, R-Beaufort, on fracking and for a vote on a Senate bill that scaled back restrictions on new landfills. The ads identifying Cook also have concluded.

Cook’s “push to open North Carolina up to out-of-state trash that would be dumped in mega-landfills … resonated strongly with the people he represents,” NRDC state director Rob Perks said in a statement. The landfill industry, however, said the bill, portions of which ultimately became law, would help the state meet its future trash demands. Cook said the ads twisted the truth.

Perks said the NRDC ads identifying cook “were not electoral in any way.” But Cook, who beat incumbent Sen. Stan White by just 21 votes in 2012 and faces him again this November, said Tuesday there was only one reason the ads were run: “It was to keep me from getting elected.”

A conservative advocacy group last week filed complaints with state regulators against the NRDC, SELC and the partnership, alleging they broke lobbying and campaign finance rules. The SELC and NRDC said they obeyed the law.

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