Democracy Alliance Network Behind a Third of 2014 Super PAC Spending

Groups backed by liberal donor club spent more than $250 million on midterms

Flickr user 401(K) 2012
November 7, 2014

The network of political and policy groups backed by the shadowy liberal donor club the Democracy Alliance was responsible for more than one of every three dollars spent by super PACs during the 2014 election cycle, public records show.

Members of the Democracy Alliance network that disclose political spending dropped more than $250 million on the midterms, according to data reported to the Federal Election Commission.

That included more than $180 million in expenditures by super PACs, more than a third of the $515 million spent by all such groups during the 2014 election cycle.

The groups’ extensive involvement in Democrats’ political efforts undercuts common media characterizations of the Democracy Alliance, which generally present the array of groups it supports as less involved in electioneering than those of similar collaborative donor networks on the right.

Such reports frequently downplay the scale of the Democracy Alliance network, commonly reported as consisting of fewer than two dozen organizations.

While DA’s 21 "aligned network" and "dynamic investment" groups form the core of its collaborative fundraising efforts, the Alliance in fact backs a far larger array of liberal political and policy groups.

As Democracy Alliance president Gara LaMarche told attendees of its April 2014 conference in Chicago, DA now encourages its donors to support groups on its "Progressive Infrastructure Map," which, LaMarche said has "now grown to 180 organizations," in addition to its 21 primary beneficiaries.

Progressive infrastructure map organizations include some of the wealthiest and most active super PACs of the 2014 election cycle, such as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D., Nev.) Senate Majority PAC and Tom Steyer’s NextGen Climate Action.

Seventeen of the groups that DA recommends for support by its wealthy liberal donors are super PACs that made independent expenditures during the 2014 cycle.

However, DA network involvement in this year’s elections went beyond just super PACs. It included traditional 527 political action committees, for-profit political vendors, and officially nonpartisan 501(c)(4) nonprofit groups.

The more than a quarter of a billion dollars that such groups spent on federal elections this cycle include disbursements through mid-October. Committees will not be required to report spending in the final weeks of the campaign until December.

The total also does not include undisclosed spending by "dark money" groups that are not forced to report most of their expenditures to the FEC.

Some of the most prominent recipients of DA support—aligned network groups such as ProgressNow and progressive infrastructure map groups like the Action Fund—are 501(c)(4) nonprofits, which are not required to disclose their donors or most of their spending on political advocacy.

Some of those groups have been active in federal elections. Others, such as Organizing for Action, President Barack Obama’s revamped reelection campaign and a DA "dynamic investment," spend millions promoting the Democratic positions on issues that were central to the campaigns of many federal candidates.

Politico reported in June that the Democracy Alliance’s 21 core organizations planned to spend $374 million this cycle.

The lack of disclosure from many groups in the network and not-yet-reported disbursements during the last two weeks of the campaign make it difficult to know whether the DA network achieved that goal.

Total election-related spending by the Democracy Alliance network—which excludes transfers between its various groups—rivals, and could even exceed, political expenditures by the network of groups supported by libertarian philanthropists Charles and David Koch.

"The real difference [between the Koch Network and the DA] is this," Alliance president Gara LaMarche told the Huffington Post in September. "Democracy Alliance donors will probably always be outspent by our counterparts on the right, but our partners are wealthy individuals and families working for a world in which their money will have less of an influence on politics, and where every American has the opportunity to succeed."

LaMarche previously touted campaign finance reform as a means to kneecap the political opposition and make it easier to advance the Democracy Alliance’s policy goals.

While it is not clear what percentage of the Koch Network’s funds came from Charles and David Koch themselves, reported fundraising totals by that network are only slightly larger than the partial spending totals reported by DA network groups to the FEC.

Donors to the Koch Network planned to raise $290 million for its portfolio organizations during the 2014 cycle, according to a Daily Beast report in June.

Recipients of that money included independent expenditure political groups and nonprofits that, like DA’s (c)(4) beneficiaries, disclose little about their donors or their expenditures.

Unlike those "dark money" groups, Super PACs are permitted by law to engage in "express advocacy," meaning they can explicitly ask voters to support or oppose a candidate.

Among those groups, Democracy Alliance spending dwarfs that of the Koch Network, which primarily finances nonprofits such as Americans for Prosperity that are not as explicitly partisan.

The leading super PAC supported by the Kochs, the Freedom Partners Action Fund, spent just $15.5 million in the 2014 cycle, about 27% of NextGen’s federal disbursements.