Liberal Dark Money Groups Outspend Conservative Groups During 2018 Midterms

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) and former Sen. Claire McCaskill (D., Mo.) / Getty
January 25, 2019

Several Democrats railed against dark money groups during the 2018 midterm elections, but a new report shows that liberal groups outspent conservative ones, spending more than half of the $150 million that went towards bankrolling House, Senate, and statewide campaigns.

Issue One, a nonpartisan advocacy group, released a report showing liberal groups spent 54 percent of the 2018 dark-money total compared the conservative groups that spent 31 percent of the total. Nonpartisan groups accounted for 15 percent of the total spending by dark money groups, the Huffington Post reported.

"As we head into the 2020 presidential election, both parties must reject the opaque ways some of their wealthiest donors are influencing elections," said Issue One CEO Nick Penniman. "Dark money is the most toxic force in politics."

Unlike many political action committees that disclose their donors, dark money groups, which are mostly nonprofits and trade organizations, do not have to disclose their donors.

Most of the liberal spending in 2018 came from a single group: Majority Forward, a nonprofit controlled by allies of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. The group reported $46 million in spending to the Federal Election Commission, about one-third of the total money spent. Another group linked to Schumer, Patriot Majority, spent an additional $5.7 million. Both groups were trying to defend a slew of Democratic incumbents in states President Donald Trump had won two years earlier.

Majority Forward’s heavy spending fueled a significant shift from earlier midterm election cycles. In 2010, conservative dark-money groups outspent liberal ones by an 11-to-1 margin, according to the report. In 2014, the margin was more than 3-to-1.

Much of the shift is also due to conservative groups ― including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Americans for Prosperity, which is backed by the powerful Koch Network of donors ― spending less than in previous elections, and to other conservative groups focusing on so-called issue ads instead of ads directly attacking or supporting candidates.

Monday marked the 9th anniversary of the Supreme Court's landmark decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which  loosened campaign finance restrictions on unions and corporations. Several Democrats were critical of the decision and used campaign finance reform as a pillar of their campaign, but they benefitted from the decision and dark money.

Andrew Gillum, the unsuccessful Florida Democratic gubernatorial nominee, was an outspoken critic of corporate and dark money in politics, but his political action committee, Forward Florida, accepted $1 million from the Democratic Governors Association, which raised millions of dollars in dark and corporate money over the years. His PAC also accepted at least $266,000 from nonprofit Collective Future, which is not required to disclose donors.

Then-Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D., Ariz.), who would go on to win her senate race, railed against dark money during her 2018 campaign and was endorsed by the End Citizens United PAC, but she benefitted from dark money flooding Arizona. Majority Forward spent over $500,000 on behalf of her and spent nearly $7 million against her Republican opponent, Martha McSally, who was later appointed to the Senate by Gov. Doug Ducey (R.). A mysterious super PAC, Red and Gold, also got involved in the Republican primary and spent $1.7 million against McSally. It was later revealed that Senate Majority PAC, a super PAC aligned with Senate Democrats, and a couple billionaire donors donated to Red and Gold.

Other Democrats who were hypocritical on dark money include the unsuccessful campaigns of senate candidate Phil Bredesen (Tenn.), former Sen. Claire McCaskill (Mo.), gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams (Ga.), former Sen. Bill Nelson (Fla.), among others.

From the Huffington Post:

While Schumer and other Democrats have called for a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United decision and other measures to force groups to disclose their donors, many have defended the use of dark-money groups, arguing the party shouldn’t unilaterally disarm in the face of Republican attacks.

While most of Majority Forward’s donors will never be revealed, the group received a $350,000 donation from Michael Arougheti, the CEO of private equity firm Ares Management and a $250,000 donation from William Conway, the co-founder of The Carlyle Group, another private equity firm, according to public records. CVS Health Corp., the parent company of the pharmacy chain, donated $250,000, and a group backed by Democratic megadonor Tom Steyer gave $200,000.