Dark Money Group Behind Kendra Horn's Rise

Oklahoma Dem benefited from hundreds of thousands in anonymous donations

Rep. Kendra Horn (D., Okla.) / Getty Images
October 23, 2020

Oklahoma congresswoman Kendra Horn (D.) raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in dark money for a pair of progressive advocacy groups, kickstarting her 2018 run for office. The Democrat now claims to be "fundamentally opposed" to dark money.

Horn served as executive director of Sally's List—a group that aims to "train, support, and elect progressive women to public office in Oklahoma"—from 2015 to 2017, according to the Oklahoma Daily. The Democrat also founded Women Lead Oklahoma in 2015, a nonprofit that "encourages women to participate in civic life." With Horn at the helm, the groups combined to raise nearly $540,000 without disclosing a single donor on their tax forms.

Horn placed financial transparency at the center of her 2018 campaign against former Republican congressman Steve Russell, claiming she would "get dark money out of our elections" to "restore a balance of power." The Democrat's rhetoric continued as a member of Congress—after defeating Russell by less than 2 points, Horn said she was "fundamentally opposed" to conservative dark money groups criticizing her 2019 vote to impeach President Donald Trump.

"These dark money groups—we don't know who's behind them, they don't have to report who's given them money," Horn told the Oklahoman. "That's why I'm fundamentally opposed to them."

But dark money played a key role in Horn's political ascent to Congress. Roughly one-quarter of the dark money Horn raised for the two groups—more than $131,000—went to the Democrat directly, according to tax forms reviewed by the Washington Free Beacon. The groups also allowed Horn to form lucrative relationships with wealthy business leaders in the state. Sonic Drive-In president Claudia San Pedro contributed thousands of dollars to Horn's campaign after speaking at a Women Lead Oklahoma luncheon in March 2018. Oklahoma trial attorney Susan Carns Curtiss, who also addressed the group at a 2018 event, has given Horn thousands since 2017.

Horn did not respond to a request for comment.

According to a 2018 Oklahoma Gazette interview, Horn "knew she wanted to run for office" based on her work with Sally's List. After the Democrat left Sally's List and Women Lead Oklahoma to focus on her campaign against Russell, both groups saw significant dips in dark money funding, raising a combined $48,924 in 2018. Neither group has registered with the Oklahoma Ethics Commission, and Women Lead Oklahoma's website is no longer live.

Horn's anti-dark money crusade has bled into her tough reelection fight against Republican state senator Stephanie Bice. The Democrat dinged outside "dark money groups" tying her to a single-payer health care system in an October tweet. Horn, however, has benefited from roughly $1.7 million in outside spending from Nancy Pelosi's House Majority PAC—the PAC has received $2.5 million from the dark money House Majority Forward in 2020.

Despite Horn's extensive ties to dark money, the Democrat is backed by End Citizens United PAC, which works to fight against the "corrupting influence" of big money in politics. The group has spent more than $516,000 backing Horn in the 2020 cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Sally's List credited itself with Horn's "phenomenal" victory over Russell in a November 2018 Facebook post and continues to support the Democrat in 2020. The group claims to be both "progressive" and "nonpartisan." In a 2019 interview with the Oklahoma Daily, founder Sara Jane Rose said that "women of either party can get an endorsement" so long as they support "affordable health care, safe and legal abortion services, and criminal justice reform." All 22 of the candidates the group has endorsed in 2020 are Democrats.

Rose told the Free Beacon that the group decided to give its donors "the option to stay anonymous" because "some Oklahomans can be punitive when it comes to the political affiliations of their neighbors." She added that only two donors have asked to be removed from the group's "program sponsor lists" at Sally's List events. While the group has occasionally posted event sponsors on its Facebook page in the past, its website does not include a list of general donors, nor does its tax forms.

Rose also told the Free Beacon that the group's policies regarding the disclosure of donors "were well in place when Kendra arrived in 2015 and have not changed since she departed."

Horn in 2019 became the first Democrat to represent Oklahoma's Fifth Congressional District in more than four decades. She is now a top target for Republicans looking to regain a House majority in 2021. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates the race as a "toss up."