Political groups’ “dark money” spending soon will exceed $1 billion reported to the Federal Election Commission since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010 that ensured political spending was protected speech.
The billion-dollar threshold, set to be eclipsed this month, is a major milestone for the industry of donors and activists who want to keep their political activity hidden from public scrutiny and contribute to groups that do not disclose their donors.
Former Rep. Zach Wamp, a Tennessee Republican who left Congress in 2011, said the “dark money” issue was originally portrayed as a problem for Republicans, but it has become a bipartisan crisis.
Mr. Wamp, who works with campaign finance watchdog group Issue One, said that in the 2018 campaign cycle, 54% of all dark money went to Democrats, 31% of dark money went to Republicans, and 15% was nonpartisan.
“The whole thing is so muddy now that nobody thinks there are any rules, nobody even attempts to comply,” Mr. Wamp told reporters. “There’s not only direct coordination between the campaigns and the outside groups, sometimes the family members are running the two, sleeping even in the same bed, and they say, ‘We’re not coordinating,’ which is just impossible.”
This year, the groups have increasingly looked to play in primaries of an opposing political party. Mr. Wamp said he spotted races in Kansas, Kentucky and North Carolina in which dark money groups were working to get the less-competitive person nominated to help their preferred candidate win.
The $1 billion contribution threshold, which includes tens of millions of dollars in the 2020 cycle, does not capture the full picture of undisclosed money shaping U.S. politics.
Anna Massoglia, researcher at Center for Responsive Politics’ OpenSecrets.org, told reporters much of the cash being spent is not recorded by the FEC.
“In addition to what’s being reported to the Federal Election Commission and more traditional campaign finance filings that people would really know to check, we’re seeing millions of dollars funneled into digital advertising by dark money groups, which is subject to less stringent requirements than a lot of TV and radio ads,” Ms. Massoglia told reporters. “We’re seeing TV and radio ads that are couched as issue advocacy that doesn’t explicitly call for the election or defeat of a candidate but paints a very favorable, or often disfavorable, picture of a candidate.”
To remedy the perceived wrong with dark money influencing American politics, Issue One has supported the Political Accountability and Transparency Act, which Rep. Derek Kilmer, Washington Democrat, has repeatedly introduced in recent years without making much headway. Mr. Kilmer told reporters the legislation would strengthen rules governing the interaction between super PACs and individual campaigns to better prevent improper coordination.
“Secret spending is dangerous because it corrodes people’s trust in our political system,” Michael Beckel, Issue One research director, told reporters. “It’s particularly troubling that the public is left in the dark about which wealthy donors and special interests are bankrolling political campaigns and currying politicians’ favors and it’s impossible to follow the money.”
Outside groups that rely on undisclosed donors say anonymity is critical for their supporters to voice their political views without fearing retribution, and the groups insist they do not disregard coordination rules and regulations.
Several conservative-leaning groups urged the IRS to follow through on rules changes late last year that allow a wide array of groups to withhold the identities of their largest donors, and the final rule was enacted in 2020, according to reports.
Among the groups pushing for the overhaul were Americans for Prosperity, the Koch network’s political advocacy arm; the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s biggest business lobby; and Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian nonprofit law firm focused on religious and civil liberties.
In an interview last week, Club for Growth President David McIntosh said as his group engages in the 2020 elections he talks to super PACs affiliated with Republican congressional leadership, such as the Senate Leadership Fund and Congressional Leadership Fund. Mr. McIntosh said the club does not communicate directly with Republican entities such as the Republican National Committee or the Senate or House fundraising arms.