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Speech isn’t free in election season

Early voting has begun for North Carolina’s May 17 primary. Most folks likely know a good bit about local candidates for seats on their county commissions, school boards, and Sheriffs.

But they likely know a lot less about hopefuls for the seat being vacated by Republican Richard Burr. That’s because the U.S. Senate race features a cast of thousands, with 14 candidates lined up on the Republican ticket alone. That contest looks to be a three-man race between former Gov. Pat McCrory, U.S. Rep. Ted Budd and former U.S. Rep. Mark Walker. Currently, polling seems to favor Budd, but McCrory has demonstrated appeal in the past, being the first Republican elected governor in North Carolina in two decades. On the flip side, he was also the first sitting governor in North Carolina history to lose a re-election bid.

Regardless, this is a competitive race, and ads—often bruising ones—are filling the airwaves. The School Freedom Fund, a pro-school choice political action group riding the deep pockets of a Wall Street billionaire, has dropped $1.3 million for pro-Budd and/or anti-McCrory ads. The Club for Growth Action, one of two political action groups of the conservative Club for Growth, plans to spend $14 million along the same lines.

There’s plenty more money rolling in from similar political action groups. Once the general election candidates have been decided, additional funds will flow freely from groups across the political spectrum.

While there’s some question about contenders on the Republican side, the Democratic primary, which features 11 candidates, seems settled outside of unforeseen events. Cheri Beasley, who lost her state Supreme Court seat to Paul Newby in 2000 by 400 votes, is the clear frontrunner now that her main party challenger, N.C. State Sen. Jeff Jackson, exited the race to seek a congressional seat. Center and left-leaning groups will undoubtedly jump in to help Beasley. Beasley is beginning to advertise, but they’re genteel “get to know me’’ spots.

Once the dust settles from the primary, well, hang on to your hat.

The 2020 N.C. U.S. Senate race between incumbent Republican Thom Tillis and Democratic nominee Cal Cunningham saw unheard-of spending levels that topped $270 million. In an election year, where the power balance of the U.S. Senate could be changed by a unicycle accident—one seat would change the balance—it’s a safe bet we’ll see spending levels approaching, or surpassing, the 2020 total.

As to learning something about the serious issues facing North Carolina and the nation, from the ads all that money will buy, well, good luck. The ads will be nasty, and they’ll be everywhere. No radio, TV channel, website, neighborhood Facebook site or mailbox will be safe from May 18th forward.

It’s going to be a wild ride, fueled by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision that corporations and others can raise and spend unlimited money on elections. This opened the floodgates to largely unregulated, often essentially anonymous, campaign dollars. That decision codified the notion that money is speech.

That can be debated. What can’t be debated is that money can overwhelm deserving, but less well-heeled, candidates by buying a bigger bullhorn and cranking that sucker up. So enjoy the relatively placid political waters of late April.

They’re going to get real choppy, real soon.

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