Most people have come to associate outside money — the hundreds of millions of dollars from politically active nonprofits and super PACs pouring into American elections — with conservatives.
And why not? Since the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision, conservative groups have far outspent their liberal counterparts. In the 2012 federal election cycle alone, conservatives shelled out almost two and a half times the amount of outside money as liberal groups, including labor unions.
But an early look at spending on television ads in North Carolina, home to a hotly contested Senate race and a number of competitive state races, shows that liberals are asserting themselves as never before. They are spending almost as much as conservatives in the Senate race and pouring funds into state contests that conservatives haven't yet spent a cent on.
A ProPublica analysis of North Carolina's top three markets shows liberal groups have booked $2.8 million in ads as of Monday praising Sen. Kay Hagan, a freshman Democrat facing a tough re-election fight, or criticizing her likely opponent. That's about the same amount as conservatives have reserved in ads attacking Hagan. A coalition of liberal nonprofits has also poured more than $1.1 million into ads criticizing four Republican state senators.
The surge in advertising by liberal outside groups is obvious when you turn on a TV in the state, said Gary Pearce, a longtime Democratic consultant in Raleigh, N.C. "It has struck me, I'd say, in the last month," he said. "It's just been a dramatic shift."
About 42 percent of the outside ads in the North Carolina markets — $3.1 million worth — were booked by so-called dark money groups, nonprofits that do not disclose their donors. The rest were booked by super PACs, which do name their contributors, and a liberal charity, which discloses its donors in its annual reports.
In the past, analysts have speculated that liberals' relative lack of outside spending reflected their discomfort with dark money groups and super PACs, both of which can raise unlimited amounts of money. Even the most prominent liberal dark money groups, such as Patriot Majority USA, spent a small portion of what conservative ones like Crossroads GPS and Americans for Prosperity did in 2012.
The leading liberal super PAC in the 2012 cycle, Priorities USA Action, spent $65 million on election activity. In contrast, Restore Our Future, the leading conservative super PAC, spent more than $142 million.
But there's been a growing push on the left to play by the same rules as conservatives. Randy Voller, the chairman of the North Carolina Democratic Party, said that while he thought the Citizens United ruling was "a colossal mistake," he didn't think that liberal outside groups had an alternative to playing by the same rules as conservatives ones. "At this point, these are the rules we have," he said.
So far, in the 2014 cycle, groups focused on the environment have led the way for liberal dark money groups.
Liberal billionaire Tom Steyer has formed NextGen Climate, which plans to support legislators who push for action on climate change and attack those who don't. The organization includes a dark money nonprofit, and has said one of its aims is to counter libertarian billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, who help fund a network of dark money groups. (Steyer's wife, Kat Taylor, is a member of ProPublica's board of directors, and the couple have been significant contributors to ProPublica.)
This month, two other environmental nonprofits announced they were starting a collaboration called LeadingGreen to steer donations to federal candidates and help major donors lobby elected officials.
For this story, we analyzed ads booked this year in Charlotte, Raleigh and Greensboro. Most of these ads don't tell people directly to vote for or against a candidate, so they don't have to be reported to the Federal Election Commission unless they run right before an election. But since 2012, the Federal Communications Commission has required TV stations in the country's 50 largest markets to post the ad contracts online. Our analysis only includes ads that were booked since the beginning of the year — although conservatives spent heavily in North Carolina last fall — and there's no guarantee that stations have uploaded every contract.
A conservative super PAC, American Crossroads, part of GOP consultant Karl Rove's outside money empire, has booked the most money in ads for those markets so far in 2014: $1.46 million. But a liberal super PAC run by former aides to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Senate Majority PAC, is only a touch behind. It has booked $1.45 million in ads praising Hagan so far this year.
On the dark money side, three conservative groups, led by Americans for Prosperity, the Koch brothers' flagship dark money group, have spent almost $1.4 million on ads criticizing Hagan. One ad portrays her as being best pals with President Obama. "Tell Sen. Hagan to stop thinking about politics and start thinking about people," says another.
But two liberal nonprofits have more than countered in recent months, booking more than $1.3 million for ads of their own. One of them, Patriot Majority USA, has spent more than $500,000 on ads attacking a likely Hagan opponent. The other nonprofit, a charity called the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, has bought several spots praising Hagan.
"Who's behind the attacks on Kay Hagan? Oil industry billionaires, that's who," says one ad, making a veiled attack at the Koch brothers. "They want to undermine the air safety standards that protect us, and Sen. Kay Hagan is working to stop them."
The group's annual reports disclose its donors, but the 2014 report may not be available for a few years. Its most recent annual report is from 2011.
The liberal Southern Alliance has only run ads in North Carolina but the buy is part of a national effort by environmental organizations, said David Di Martino, a consultant for the groups. Other nonprofits have bought ads supporting Sen. Susan Collins, the moderate Maine Republican, and Democrats running for Senate seats in Iowa and Michigan. The groups are coordinating "to ensure that we're getting the most bang out of the buck," Di Martino said.
The North Carolina Environmental Partnership, a coalition of nine environmental groupsformed last month, has reserved more than $1.1 million of ads attacking four Republican state senators — three of whom are facing close races this fall — for their support for fracking. The coalition's two largest members, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Southern Environmental Law Center, footed the bill for the ads. They do not disclose their donors.
While conservative dark-money groups, such as Real Jobs NC, have shoveled money into attack ads targeting North Carolina state senators in recent years, liberal groups haven't done so until now. "I've never seen the liberal side of the equation do anything like this," said Brad Crone, a Democratic political and public relations consultant in Raleigh, N.C.
Bob Keefe, spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council, wouldn't confirm how much the coalition has spent. "We basically all agreed to not disclose how much we're spending," he said. "But it's a lot."
Although conservative groups have not booked ads in state legislature races so far, two groups — the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce and a super PAC called Justice for All NC — have also reserved ads mentioning candidates in the state Supreme Court races, almost $650,000 worth so far.
This article originally appeared in ProPublica.