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Dark money attack ads target Lisa Barnes, Allen Wellons in NC Senate race

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Dark money attack ads against candidates in the race for state House District 11 have been filling up mailboxes in southern Nash County.
Dark money attack ads against candidates in the race for state House District 11 have been filling up mailboxes in southern Nash County.
Photo illustration by Thor Kay | Special to The Enterprise

Attack ads are filling up local mailboxes in the race for state Senate District 11, but figuring out exactly who’s doing the mudslinging can be a real chore.

State Rep. Lisa Barnes, a Spring Hope farmer, is a Republican; former state Sen. Allen Wellons, a Smithfield lawyer, is a Democrat. They’re vying in November’s general election for a seat representing parts of Nash and Johnston counties left vacant by Republican Sen. Rick Horner, who chose not to seek re-election.

Two ads currently circulating that concentrate on the coronavirus crisis are particularly nasty. The ad against Wellons claims he left nursing home residents without power so he could run his tobacco farm with state equipment. The ad against Barnes claims she’s voted against protections for COVID-19.

Barnes said she doesn’t like negative ads, but she has no control over third-party political action committees.

“It shows I have support,” Barnes said. “But by law, I have no contact with whoever is doing it.”

As for the ads against her, she said she acted early and quickly to fight the coronavirus in North Carolina.

Wellons said the ads attacking him are explicit attempts to mislead voters.

“This is nearly a two and a half decade-old story that was started by my opponent in 1996 and a former Republican state House member, and debunked in the Smithfield Herald back in September 1996,” Wellons said. “That has not stopped the dark-money super PAC Citizens for a Better N.C. Senate from launching its now fourth dirty attack against me in a series of explicit attempts to mislead the voters. As a farm owner with deep ties to the agriculture community, I will never apologize for coming to the aid of farmers after a natural disaster.”

Wellons’ campaign manager Logan Rains released a Friday statement concerning the ads after receiving questions from The Enterprise on Thursday.

The mailers include fine-print disclosures explaining that candidates didn’t authorize the ads. Groups like the ones mailing ads against Wellons and Barnes funnel money to support political campaigns without the donors appearing on financial records in a campaign finance process loophole commonly called “dark money.”

The ad against Wellons digs back to the mid-1990s when Wellons previously served as a state senator. The ad quotes stories in the News & Record of Greensboro and The StarNews of Wilmington from 1996 when Wellons was accused of using a National Guard generator to cure tobacco on his Smithfield farm in the aftermath of Hurricane Fran while elderly nursing home residents went without power. 

The mailer ignores a well-known article in the Smithfield Herald at the time that debunked the claims with reports that several farmers received use of generators from the state. 

The ad connects that situation to the current coronavirus crisis, stating, “When disasters strike, we need kind, helpful legislators to help us get back on our feet. Not self-serving politicians who use their power to lookout for themselves.”

The ad against Barnes uses bills she voted for to claim she blocked Medicaid expansion, voted to cut the budget for the state’s health department, forced rural hospitals to close and allowed insurance plans to weaken protections for people with pre-existing conditions. The punchline reads: “Remind State Legislator Lisa Barnes — She works for us, not the insurance companies.”

Citizens for a Better N.C. Senate paid for the ad against Wellons. Created in May, the group spent $97,000 in June running mailers to support Barnes, according to state campaign finance reports.

Keith Tatum, a member of the Yanceyville Town Council, is listed in organizing documents as the group’s treasurer. As a local Tea Party chairman, Tatum endorsed long-serving Republican state Sen. Phil Berger during his successful 2011 reelection campaign.

N.C. Common Ground paid for the ad against Barnes. The group, which targets Republican lawmakers, is linked in tax records to N.C. Citizens for Protecting Our Schools. That group formed around 2011. N.C. Citizens is incorporated as a 501(c)(4) social welfare organization under the federal tax code, meaning it doesn’t have to reveal its donors.

On a 2015 tax form, N.C. Citizens lists its president as Raleigh lawyer Andy Penry.

Penry, who couldn’t be reached last week for comment, told WRAL-TV in 2018 that he was no longer associated with N.C. Citizens.

That year, Gov. Roy Cooper appointed Penry to the state elections board. By the end of 2018, Penry resigned amid bipartisan calls for him to step down. While serving as elections board chairman, Penry insulted President Donald Trump on Twitter, calling the president “completely insane, not to mention heartless.”

The heated race between Barnes and Wellons began with sound victories for both sides. Barnes and Wellons handily defeated their primary opponents in March to receive their respective party nominations. Wellons received 61% of the Democratic vote and Barnes received 68% of the Republican vote, which positioned them to face each other in the general election.

A former three-term state senator from 1996 to 2002, Wellons has focused his campaign this time around on investments in schools, infrastructure and communities.

A first-term state representative, Barnes chose to run for the Senate seat instead of seeking reelection to House District 7.