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The Numbers That Matter in North Carolina

The president's trip today to Virginia and North Carolina has set off another round of punditry about how much his reelection team is staking on holding those states next year, and how things are not looking so good there for him. Virginia's gubernatorial election in 2009 was one of the first signs of the pendulum swing back toward the Republicans, North Carolina's legislature fell out of Democratic control last year for the first time since the 19th century, and Obama's approval/disapproval rating is listing in both states -- 45/52 in a recent Virginia poll and 42/51 in North Carolina.

What's missing from much of this coverage is the number that should be in every story about politics in North Carolina today: $40 million. That is the best estimate available of the amount that North Carolina conservative Art Pope, his family foundation and his business (a privately held discount chain called Variety Wholesalers) have spent in promoting Republicans and conservative causes, most of it geared toward fundamentally changing the political landscape in his home state. I was embarrassingly clueless about the extent of Pope's role in North Carolina before reading Jane Mayer's superb recent report in the New Yorker. This must-read story describes, among other things, the huge impact Pope had in last year's North Carolina election, when he funneled about $2.2 million through several organizations that ran brutal ads against Democratic state legislators; their losses, some by excruciatingly tight margins, tipped the balance in the legislature. By claiming the legislature, Republicans have been able to take the next step in assuring that North Carolina's 2008 turn to purple is swiftly reversed -- redrawing congressional lines to target the state's Democratic congressmen (prognosticators predict that four seats will flip to the Republicans) and pushing legislation to crimp turnout by Democratic voters. As Martin Nesbitt, the Democratic leader in the North Carolina State Senate, told Mayer, "Art Pope set out to buy power, and it's working."

Of course, Pope sees it differently. When Mayer asked whether he'd be as active next year as he was in 2010, he said, “Yes, I’m going to support my side. I really do believe in the marketplace of ideas. I really do believe that my philosophies and theories that I support, classical liberalism, will prevail over arguments for socialism and the growth of government.” He told Mayer that if his opponents disagreed they could fund their own side: “I welcome the competition.”

But if this is going to be a marketplace, then voters ought to know what they're buying. And for that to happen, it would help if the pundits looking at these states looked beyond the unemployment rates and polling data and took into more account the Art Popes shaping the landscape.