Buying a Blue Seat

Two months before the May 17 Democratic primary, Nida Allam’s congressional campaign was optimistic. 

Allam, a 28-year-old Durham County commissioner, had raised nearly $700,000 in less than six months. She’d soon bank the endorsements of Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. And she believed her top rival, state Sen. Valerie Foushee, was struggling to generate enthusiasm despite 25 years in office and the backing of more than two dozen local Democratic officials. 

Then, suddenly, everything changed. 

Since mid-March, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a political action committee (PAC) that supports pro-Israel candidates, has funneled more than $433,000 into Foushee’s coffers, accounting for 54 percent of the campaign’s total fundraising, according to Federal Elections Commission records. 

Then came the super PACs—independent organizations that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money promoting candidates or issues. In April, the AIPAC-affiliated United Democracy Project, Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI), and Protect Our Future, which is funded by a 30-year-old cryptocurrency billionaire, began saturating the Triangle with nearly $2.7 million in advertising on Foushee’s behalf. 

Including what candidates have raised themselves, the contest is the most expensive Democratic congressional primary in North Carolina history. And as of Monday, the race has seen more spending from outside groups than any state primary for U.S. House in either party. That funding has propelled Foushee to a 19-point lead—a much more sizable advantage than her campaign’s internal polling had her at just a few weeks ago.

The outside money has also exposed the fecklessness of regulations designed to prohibit coordination between campaigns and their super PACs and put into sharp relief a challenge facing campaign finance reform: During the campaign, Foushee promised to fight the influence of big money. But if she wins, big money will have paved her road to Washington. 

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AIPAC’s motives aren’t a secret. It wants to defeat Allam, the first Muslim woman elected to office in North Carolina. 

Foushee is a means to that end. Between April 15 and May 3, United Democracy Project spent $1.47 million backing the state senator, on top of the $433,000 AIPAC and its members directly contributed to her campaign. 

Foushee’s campaign manager said in a statement that she won AIPAC’s support “because of her unequivocal support for a two-state solution in the Middle East and her belief that Israel is a critically important strategic ally—and the only democracy—in the region.”

But many Democrats have become wary of AIPAC in recent years. Every Democratic presidential candidate skipped AIPAC’s annual conference in 2019. The organization opposed President Barack Obama’s Iran nuclear deal, supported the right-wing government of former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and has been accused by some progressives—including new White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre—of “trafficking in anti-Muslim and anti-Arab rhetoric.” 

AIPAC wouldn’t be in North Carolina’s 4th Congressional District if it weren’t for Allam, who has criticized Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and the $3.8 billion a year in military aid the U.S. gives Israel. In a December op-ed, Allam apologized for a 2018 tweet that “unintentionally invoked anti-Semitic tropes.”  

“As the daughter of immigrants, my foreign policy views always center peace and the defense of human rights abroad,” Allam, who became a political organizer after three Muslim friends were murdered in 2015, told The Assembly in an email. “I believe the United States has a responsibility to pursue peace and ensure that both Israelis and Palestinians can live with dignity.”

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Photo courtesy of Nida Allam

After campaign finance reports revealed AIPAC’s bundled donations, the Progressive Caucus of the North Carolina Democratic Party revoked its endorsement of Foushee. The caucus pointed out that AIPAC also endorsed most of the Republicans who voted against certifying President Joe Biden’s election on Jan. 6, 2021. 

On April 25, Foushee told a forum of Granville County Democrats that “many” of the AIPAC members who donated to her “have supported my campaign as a school board member, as a county commissioner, and as a legislator. And no one ever questioned those doctors, lawyers, and teachers who live in my district, and who have donated to me.” 

That’s not true. 

Of the 399 donations AIPAC bundled for Foushee through the end of April, only 26 came from North Carolina, and just seven came from people who can actually vote for her, Federal Election Commission records show. Most contributors live in California, Florida, or New York. AIPAC also generated 85 percent of the money Foushee raised in April.

Foushee declined to respond to The Assembly’s questions about her misleading statement.  

At the Granville County forum, Foushee also complained that she, ”this one Black Baptist female,” was being singled out over AIPAC’s funding when the group supported other Democrats, too. 

AIPAC has donated to other Democrats, including congressional candidates Jeff Jackson and Don Davis. It has also given money to every House member seeking reelection in North Carolina, Democrat or Republican, except Madison Cawthorn, records show. 

But none of those other candidates has received more than $19,400 from AIPAC’s committee or members, less than 5 percent of what the group gave Foushee. And only Davis—a moderate state senator running against a progressive who wants to provide equal aid to Israel and Palestinians—has backing from United Democracy Project, which has spent $1.7 million on the race as of May 9

On May 4, DMFI, another pro-Israel super PAC led by Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, began running more than $218,000 in digital and television ads promoting Foushee, FEC records show. 

State Rep. Marcia Morey, a Durham Democrat who endorsed Foushee early in the campaign, says Foushee’s reliance on AIPAC has made her reconsider her support. 

“I was very disappointed to see that Sen. Foushee’s campaign accepted the money from AIPAC,” Morey told The Assembly. “I know they have said it won’t influence her thinking. But with that large a campaign contribution, it has to influence your thinking on political issues.”

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The motivations behind Protect Our Future’s $982,000 investment are more opaque. 

The PAC launched in January with $14 million, of which $13 million came from Sam Bankman-Fried, the founder of a cryptocurrency exchange based in the Bahamas. The PAC says its agenda has nothing to do with digital currencies. A spokesperson says it aims to build “a set of champions for pandemic preparedness.”  

To date, FEC records show that Protect Our Future has spent $14.4 million in six Democratic primaries, all in Democratic-leaning districts. On April 27, the group announced that it planned to spend another $10 million on nearly a dozen more Democratic primary candidates, NBC News reported

Responding to The Assembly’s questions, the group declined to explain why it jumped into North Carolina’s 4th District or how it evaluates candidates. It also did not explain why it believes Foushee would be better for a future pandemic than her rivals, who include Duke University climate-health expert Ashley Ward and virologist Richard Watkins. 

“Valerie Foushee has demonstrated strong leadership in the wake of extraordinary times while serving in the state senate and supporting the delivery of COVID-19 relief to the people of North Carolina,” Protect Our Future President Michael Sadowsky said in a statement. 

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Photo courtesy of Valerie Foushee

Bankman-Fried, who also personally contributed $2,900 to Foushee, did not respond to an email seeking an interview. Protect Our Future did not say what role he plays in the PAC’s endorsements. 

Ray La Raja, a political scientist who studies campaign finance at the University of Massachusetts - Amherst, says it’s likely no coincidence that Protect Our Future’s funds have gone to establishment candidates at a time when Congress is considering cryptocurrency regulations. 

“If you want to do well with the [Democratic Party] leadership,” La Raja said, “form a super PAC and make sure that people they like get elected.”

Independent expenditures in House and Senate primaries doubled between 2016 and 2020, and 2022 has already set a record, according to OpenSecrets.org. In part, that’s because deep-pocketed interest groups can get more bang for the buck in primaries, experts say. 

In general elections, there aren’t many movable voters, so big spenders face diminishing returns. 

“Voters don't know as much [in primaries], turnout is lower, and there’s usually not a dime's worth of ideological difference between the candidates,” said Chris Cooper, a political scientist at Western Carolina University and contributor to The Assembly. “So this is where money still matters in American politics.”

La Raja also said that political parties have figured out how to use super PACs to put their thumb on the scale while maintaining a veneer of neutrality, which is what he believes is happening in the 4th District. 

“They’re using super PACs to do their dirty work,” he said.

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Weeks before the super PAC money started pouring into the 4th District, internet, and telephone polls tested attacks against Allam. 

The polls—who commissioned them is still unclear—told respondents that Allam had affiliations with terrorist sympathizers and “radical anti-Israel activists,” according to screengrabs and recordings obtained by The Assembly

Foushee has denied responsibility for the polls. And so far, neither her campaign nor the super PACs supporting her have run negative ads. Instead, they’ve stuck to positive messages highlighting Foushee’s biography—often using the same imagery, the same themes, and even the same language. 

United Democracy Project’s ads don’t mention Israel or Allam. Protect Our Future’s ads say nothing about the pandemic or cryptocurrency. They all stick to the script Foushee laid out on her website. 

While the FEC says it’s illegal for outside groups to spend money “at the request or suggestion” of a candidate, it happens all the time. 

Soon after the Supreme Court opened the floodgates to unlimited spending with the Citizens United decision in 2010, political operatives found a loophole in FEC regulations banning candidates from coordinating their messaging with super PACs: a broadly written “safe harbor” provision that permits super PACs to use “publicly available material,” including material on candidates’ websites. 

This gave birth to “redboxing,” a practice in which campaigns “transmit instructions for advertising, polling, and targeting data, and other useful materials to super PACs with the intent to direct the expenditures of these nominally independent groups,” as Kaveri Sharma explained in a recent article for the Yale Law Journal. 

These instructions are often contained inside red boxes on the candidates’ websites. This strategy “allows operatives to plausibly—though disingenuously—deny that they communicate with outside groups to coordinate strategy,” Sharma wrote. 

The redbox message on Foushee’s website tells super PACs that voters “only need to know about Valerie Foushee,” including that she “has dedicated her life to public service” and “stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Governor Roy Cooper to stop radical Republican attacks on women’s right to choose and our freedom to vote.”

Allam and candidate Clay Aiken, the former American Idol singer, also have redboxes. The Allam-backing Working Families Party National PAC recently spent $50,000 on social media ads that borrow liberally from Allam’s messaging; in total, the super PAC has spent about $189,000 on Allam’s behalf. (FEC records show no independent expenditures on Aiken’s behalf.)

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Photo courtesy of Clay Aiken

In her article, Sharma argued that redboxes “facilitate unlawful contributions” from super PACs because they “more closely resemble requests or suggestions for communications” than content intended for public consumption. 

But as written, the rules are unenforceable, experts say. 

“[This is] one of the real inadequacies of our current campaign-finance regime,” said Erin Chlopak, senior director of campaign finance at the government watchdog group Campaign Legal Center. “The law really hasn’t kept up with the development of super PACs and other independent spending.”

Last year, Rep. David Price, who has represented the 4th District for most of the last 36 years, sponsored a bill to narrow the safe harbor provision, but it didn’t pass. 

Allam says she supports Price’s legislation and points out that she was endorsed by the group End Citizens United

Aiken told The Assembly he would go further: “I’d advocate for banning all outside spending entirely, and only allowing candidates to raise money from within their district.”

Foushee’s campaign did not provide her position on Price’s bill or respond to questions about her super PAC support. But in a questionnaire for the Durham People’s Alliance, she wrote, “The idea that ‘the candidate with the most money usually wins’ is a terribly undemocratic way to elect the best and brightest to elected positions. Frankly, it makes me sick. But as long as this is the system we are operating under, I, as a candidate, must play ball—Republicans definitely are.”

In this overwhelmingly Democratic district, whoever wins the primary will be a prohibitive favorite in November. 

Foushee didn’t need to be a bystander while super PACs bought her a congressional seat, said Morey, the state representative. 

“I think she could publicly disavow it: ‘I never asked for this. I have not pursued this. They're doing it independently. This will not influence anything about me. I’m against corporate PAC money. I'm against bundling money. And we need to totally redo our campaign finance laws.’”

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Jeffrey Billman reports on criminal justice and politics from Durham. He is the former editor-in-chief of INDY Week. Tips: jeffreybillman@protonmail.com.