WILMINGTON—Party leaders are keying into the District 9 state Senate race, which will be fought in New Hanover County between Democratic incumbent Harper Peterson and his Republican opponent Michael Lee, who Peterson dethroned in 2018.
In this election cycle, the N.C. Democratic Senate Caucus furnished the Peterson campaign with more than $730,000.
For Lee, the N.C. Senate Majority Fund shelled out nearly $500,000. Similar to the party contributions to Peterson, some of the money is designated for mailers, research, polling and other campaign expenses, while a sizable portion is usable as unrestricted cash.
For both campaigns, state-level party organizations transferred funds throughout the summer, but bumped up their financial assistance in recent weeks. Peterson received a $180,000 debit card transfer from his caucus on Oct. 23, while Lee’s most recent boost from the Senate Majority fund was a $20,000 wire on Oct. 23.
Financial elites, too, have entered the fray. On both sides, national heavyweights are backing the race, which in 2018 was instrumental in curbing the Republican supermajority within the chamber.
James Goodnight, the billionaire co-founder of a global business analytics software vendor, has his money on Lee, as does Fred Eshelman, the former CEO of PPD Inc., whose name is on the University of North Carolina School of Pharmacy.
Tom Steyer, the hedge fund billionaire who made a long-shot bid for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, sent $5,400 to Peterson in late September. Numerous other California-based players also contributed four-figure donations to the Democratic incumbent.
In total, between July 1 and Oct. 17, Lee reported a cash haul of just under $566,000. Peterson brought in $638,000 during that timeframe. During the entire election cycle, each candidate has raised more than $900,000.
“He was kind of the candidate that pushed us over the edge two years ago, and we sure want to keep him there,” said Richard Poole, head of the local Democratic Party, referring to Peterson.
In North Carolina, at least 30 Senate votes are needed to override a veto from the governor. Democrats securely held the chamber between 1992 and 2008 — in those years, Democrats lacked 30 seats for only four years. Between 2010 and 2016, Republicans rebounded, holding at least 30 seats in the chamber during that era. The party lost its ability to nullify a Gov. Roy Cooper veto with a party line vote in 2018, when Democrats gained six seats to bring their total up to 21, and the Republican majority dropped to 29.
In 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a federal judge’s ruling that 28 state legislative districts were the product of an illegal racial gerrymander. With a census count currently underway and districting authority for the next 10 years up for grabs, both Lee and Peterson vowed to promote an independent redistricting process, regardless of which party ends up with the majority after this election cycle.
With his bankroll, Lee made $376,000 in recent payments to People Who Think, LLC. — a Louisiana-based advertising and marketing firm that did work for Donald Trump during the 2016 general election season.
Peterson’s advertising firm of choice was Prism Communications, which boasts a portfolio of advertising campaigns across the country for races at all levels of governance. In recent months, Peterson’s campaign paid the Washington, D.C.-based firm $400,000.
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