Top Liberal Operative Funnels Millions From Super PAC to Her Private Firm

Tara McGowan, who runs dark money ACRONYM network, behind botched Iowa app

Tara McGowan on C-SPAN
Tara McGowan on C-SPAN
May 8, 2020

Tara McGowan, the Democratic operative most closely associated with the technological fiasco that unfolded in the Iowa caucuses, has funneled nearly $2.4 million from her super PAC to her private firm. It is the latest in a series of transfers between entities in her dark money network.

New disclosure forms show that PACRONYM, a super PAC affiliated with McGowan's nonprofit ACRONYM—the dark money group behind the botched Iowa caucus app—spent close to $2.4 million on anti-Trump ads Wednesday night that will run in the key swing state of Pennsylvania. The money was sent to a for-profit digital consulting firm, Lockwood Strategy Lab, which is also part of McGowan's network.

McGowan's PAC has been active in an effort by Democratic groups to flood battleground states with ads criticizing President Donald Trump's response to the coronavirus pandemic. The PAC's filings show that it has been heavily financed by the same wealthy liberal donors who also provide millions to a number of groups undertaking similar efforts.

The new expenditures are not the first time McGowan has funneled between the two groups. The super PAC had already sent nearly $1.5 million this cycle to the digital firm for media buys against Trump and $400,000 for digital consulting and survey research. The super PAC transferred $1 million to the firm during the 2018 election cycle. PACRONYM and Lockwood Strategy did not respond to a request for comment on the transfers.

McGowan, who previously worked for Priorities USA Action and President Obama's reelection campaign, created ACRONYM following the 2016 election to rival Trump's online operations. Under its umbrella are PACRONYM, Lockwood Strategy, Courier Newsroom, and technology firm Shadow Inc., which developed the app that failed in spectacular fashion during Iowa's Democratic caucuses. The Nevada Democratic Party abandoned the app following the Iowa debacle and ahead of its own caucuses.

While ACRONYM does not disclose its donors, some of its funders can be gleaned from public records. For example, Federal Election Commission filings show that the nonprofit received $300,000 from Nancy Pelosi's House Majority PAC in 2018. That same year, the super PAC received a $45,000 donation from billionaire Tom Steyer's NextGen Climate Action Committee, which also paid an additional $90,000 for data consulting services.

PACRONYM, on the other hand, must disclose its donors. So far this cycle, the super PAC has hauled in $9.6 million primarily from deep-pocketed individuals. Its biggest contributor is George Soros, whose Democracy PAC has pushed $1.75 million to the super PAC. Billionaire hedge fund investor Donald Sussman provided $1 million, putting him among the group's top donors. The PAC's money, in turn, has mainly been sent to Lockwood Strategy for ads, consulting services, and research.

Kyle Tharp, a spokesman for ACRONYM, said Lockwood is "owned 100% by the nonprofit." He added that McGowan, who is listed as the firm's governor in D.C. business records, does not have an ownership stake in the company and that no individual profits from it.

With the millions it paid to Lockwood for the anti-Trump campaign, PACRONYM joins a number of other liberal groups spending big on similar efforts in battleground states.

Priorities USA Action, the largest Democratic super PAC backing Joe Biden's candidacy, has said it plans to spend upward of $150 million on the 2020 elections. The group has poured seven-figure sums into ads in the Midwest attacking Trump over coronavirus. Like PACRONYM, Priorities USA's top donors include Sussman ($8 million) and Soros ($5 million).

Liberal operative David Brock's American Bridge PAC, which recently joined forces with the pro-Biden Unite the Country PAC to form a $175 million coalition, has also spent millions attacking Trump in battleground states over COVID-19. Soros has given the PAC $2 million.

The individuals who launched Unite the Country also created a dark money group called Future Majority, which plans to spend at least $60 million against Trump in the Midwest.

Update 5/8/20 3:20 p.m.: This article has been updated to include a response from an ACRONYM spokesman.