The Democratic Party of Virginia received a $150,000 donation earlier this month from a D.C.-based progressive nonprofit that is funded by millions in dark money.
ACRONYM, a 501(c)(4) "dark money" group, was co-founded in 2017 by Tara McGowan, a 33-year-old Democratic strategist and former digital director for the Priorities USA super PAC, and former Dollar Shave Club CEO Mike Dubin. During ACRONYM's first year in 2017, McGowan coordinated 100 percent of the digital advertising for Gov. Ralph Northam's (D., Va.) successful gubernatorial race, according to Axios.
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On Sept. 6, ACRONYM donated $150,000 to the Democratic Party of Virginia, making it the largest single donation to the Virginia Democrats in 2019, tied with the House Democratic Caucus and Common Good VA, which also made $150,000 donations, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. In addition to helping Virginia Democrats, ACRONYM is investing seven figures in a Virginia news website called the Dogwood, as the Daily Beast reported in July.
The Dogwood makes no bones about its progressive leanings. But such deep financial backing from an explicitly agenda-driven organization raises questions of disclosure and journalistic ethics as the website covers policy fights and political contests that might involve paying clients of its largest investor.
The many links between the two groups underscore the ethical pitfalls for The Dogwood in covering issues and elections in which Acronym is involved. The latter has received donations from some of the most prominent groups in Democratic politics, including Steyer’s NextGen Climate Action Committee and Giffords PAC, the gun control group founded by former Arizona congresswoman Gabby Giffords and her husband, current Arizona Senate candidate Mark Kelly.
Since last month, The Dogwood has covered both NextGen and Giffords favorably. On June 27, after Acronym employees had already begun contributing to the site, The Dogwood ran a story headlined, "NextGen America and Emily’s List fighting to flip Virginia blue."
In addition to political work in Virginia, ACRONYM was behind a $3 million advertising push in 36 states to register new voters last year before the midterm elections. The campaign, which was dubbed "Knock the Vote," shows a silhouette of President Donald Trump's face being punched on its website. ACRONYM was also involved in a coordinated $10 million digital effort with the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee and the National Democratic Redistricting Committee.
McGowan, who was Obama for America's digital producer during Obama's reelection campaign, has been the CEO of ACRONYM since the group launched and has been instrumental in raising more than $18 million, registering 60,000 voters, and producing more than 10,000 Facebook ads, according to the group's 2018 overview. As a nonprofit, a majority of ACRONYM's funds must be used to promote "social welfare." However, the group has a web of for-profit companies beneath it including "a campaign consulting firm (Lockwood Strategy), a political tech company with a peer-to-peer texting product (Shadow) and a media company investing in local left-leaning outlets (FWIW Media)."
Lockwood Strategy has received over $1 million for digital consulting since 2018, including progressive PACs like Planned Parenthood Votes, Change Now, Community Change Voters, and Win Justice, which altogether received $5 million from liberal billionaire George Soros during the 2018 election cycle. In addition to those groups, ACRONYM has worked with several national progressive special interest groups, including Planned Parenthood, NextGen America, EMILY’s List, AFL-CIO, Center for American Progress, and Everytown for Gun Safety.
It is unclear what Dubin's day-to-day role with the group is, besides being the co-founder, but he has donated thousands of dollars to Democratic campaigns, including $1,000 to South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg's presidential campaign and $2,700 to Sen. Cory Booker's (N.J.) Senate campaign. Dubin also donated $2,700 to Hillary for America, $2,200 to Sen. Kamala Harris (D., Calif.), and thousands to other congressional campaigns.