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“More weed, less war”: The new conservative dark money gambit to win the Senate

Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

The North Carolina Senate race, where incumbent Kay Hagan (D) is pitted against challenger Thom Tillis (R), is one of the few that's been going well for Democrats lately. But a conservative dark money group has a plan to change that — convince pro-pot, antiwar young voters to vote for libertarian Sean Haugh instead of Hagan:

The ads are bizarre. Over peppy music, they show smiling, perky young people mouthing slogans like "Get Haugh, get high!" and "More weed, less war." They seem designed to appeal to some middle-aged political consultant's imaginary idea of a young voter — an empty-headed dope who thinks war's a total drag and just wants to get his smoke on.

The young actors urge a vote for Haugh, a pizza deliveryman and perennial candidate who uses YouTube videos to promote his message. (Karen Tumulty and Reid Wilson wrote this excellent profile of him back in July.) Haugh himself had nothing to do with the ads, and hasn't disclosed raising any money. But he's currently winning about 5.7 percentage points in the HuffPostPollster average potentially enough to swing the close election, particularly if he draws more support from one candidate than the other.

That's why he's drawn the attention of this outside group, which makes its agenda clear when the ads go after Hagan. In one, a young woman says "Stop! Don't even think about voting for Kay Hagan." Others dub her "out of touch" and "pro-war," and one says, "Kay Hagan doesn't support those values [pot and peace], but Sean Haugh does." The lack of support of GOP candidate Tillis for those values not-so-strangely goes unmentioned.

The group spending $225,000 on these ads is the American Future Fund, which was founded by GOP operative Nick Ryan and has spent tens of millions of dollars on ads backing Republicans and attacking Democrats since 2010. In 2012, the AFF was heavily associated with the Koch brothers' dark money network — according to Robert Maguire of, 92 percent of its revenues that year came from the two main Koch money hubs, Freedom Partners and the Center to Protect Patient Rights.

A Freedom Partners spokesman told the Washington Post's Matea Gold that the group isn't funding AFF this year, and has nothing to do with the ads for Haugh. But since AFF doesn't disclose its donors, we don't know who's footing the bill for this strange strategy — and we probably never will.

Watch: We're bombarded with political ads every election. But do they even work?

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