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OpenSecrets: Liberal Dark Money Dominating 2014 Elections

Posted on 14-Nov-2013
Topics: Dark Money in Politics  

From OpenSecrets:

Nobody really thought that election-related spending by outside groups -- which totaled $1 billion in the 2012 election cycle, not counting party spending -- would do anything but grow in future elections.

But the increase so far in 2013 is surprising even so: Super PACs and politically active nonprofits have spent more than three times their outlays at the same point in the last election -- $20.6 million, up from $6.3 million

Among those outside spenders, dark money organizations -- 501(c)(4) and 501(c)(6) nonprofits that don't have to disclose their donors -- have nearly quintupled their spending of two years ago. These groups have already spent $2.5 million in the early months of the 2014 cycle, compared to just $440,678 at this point in 2012.

The increases are only part of the story, though. There's also a leftward ideological shift taking place when it comes to who's spending the money.

Liberal Dark Money Dominates in 2014

Spending by liberal 501(c)(4) groups is already more than $1.7 million so far this cycle. That's an increase of nearly 6700 percent over the $25,458 spent by liberal dark money groups at this point in the 2012 cycle.

That means liberal dark money in 2013 makes up 70 percent of all the dark money spent so far. At this point in 2011, liberal money accounted for less than 6 percent of the dark money spent, and in 2009, the total was a little higher, at 6.5 percent.

The top spender, the League of Conservation Voters, has already reported laying out more than $800,000 in direct support for Ed Markey's (D-Mass.) successful run for the Senate seat vacated by John Kerry -- almost twice as much as all dark money groups combined had spent at this point in the 2012 cycle.

LCV's pro-Markey efforts account for nearly half of the liberal dark money spent so far in 2013, and a third of all dark money spent.

Last February, when Markey came under fire for comparing the Citizens United decision to the infamous 1857 Dred Scott Supreme Court decision -- which denied citizenship to anyone of African descent and provided a legal framework for slavery -- his campaign responded by saying, "Karl Rove, the Koch Brothers and anonymous special interests have no place in our elections and no place in this Senate race." Yet once the race was over, it was clear that the vast majority of the anonymous money spent in the race favored Markey.

LCV's efforts in support of Markey were entirely positive, an aberration in dark money spending. Most outside groups use their resources to attack their favored candidates' opponents.

So far this cycle, more dark money has been spent supporting candidates, rather than opposing them -- a departure from both the 2010 and 2012 cycles at this point in time.

The negativity hasn't vanished, though. The shape-shifting liberal group, Patriot Majority USA, has spent $557,879 opposing Republican candidates Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Even in second place, Patriot Majority USA has already spent more than all dark money groups had spent at this point two years ago.

Conservative dark money spending is low in comparison to liberal groups, though it too has increased. Currently sitting at $740,161, conservative dark money spending has increased 78 percent over spending at this point in 2012. That means conservative dark money spending in this midterm election already outpaces spending during the presidential election cycle -- which shattered previous records -- but the increase is nowhere near the jump seen among liberal dark money groups.

A Break from Previous Cycles

The vast majority of the dark money spent in earlier cycles came from organizations on the conservative side of the spectrum:

In the 2010 and 2012 cycles, fully 88 percent and 85 percent, respectively, of the dark money spent influencing elections was spent by conservative groups.

In the next few months, CRP will be collecting and processing tax filings from hundreds of politically active nonprofits and their nonprofit donors that detail the groups' 2012 findings; these groups don't have to file their annual reports with the IRS until long after their political spending appeared on the radar screen -- or, more likely, voters' TV screens.

Despite the long wait, there are few things we know. We know that the money spent by these organizations will be reach into the billions, and hundreds of millions of that was spent trying to influence federal elections. Much of the rest of the money, as we've already seen with groups like Americans for Job Security and Freedom Partners, was spent on grants to other politically active nonprofits.

Most of all, we know from spending data reported to the FEC that this money will be overwhelmingly conservative.

A Word of Caution

A warning: while the data is interesting and certainly merits attention, it's important to remember that the election cycle is still very young.

And cycles differ according to changes that take place in the law. For example, the Citizens United case that did so much to accelerate spending by dark money groups had not yet been decided at this point in the 2010 cycle.

On top of that, dark money is notoriously hard to track. There are long periods of time where spending does not have to be reported to the FEC, and even then, FEC data only measures money spent on federal elections. Many of the groups active in federal races also operate at the state level. Still more, there are the ads that border on being political that aren't technically political ads. The recent healthcare fight provided some good examples of this. In the months that led to the shutdown, groups like Generation Opportunity, Americans for Prosperity and Public Notice made a variety of ads that focused on one of the most contentious issues in American politics, the Affordable Care Act, or "Obamacare." But these ads aren't required to be reported to the FEC, and it's not clear if they would be considered political under the IRS' more subjective test.


[1] "Liberal Dark Money Dominating 2014 Elections", Robert Maguire, OpenSecrets, 7-Nov-2013

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