It’s a fundraising tactic politicians decry but have benefited from to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars over the past decade: “dark money” from secret donors.
With just weeks until the midterms, Senate Democrats are preparing to vote on legislation that would offer voters a look under the hood of shadowy nonprofits and other political groups by no longer allowing anonymous contributions of more than $10,000. It would force campaigns to disclose the identities of their donors.
It’s a recurring proposition over the past decade by Democrats in Washington, who have benefited in recent years more than Republicans from dark money groups. Still, they say the move will provide transparency into how political efforts are bankrolled.
Spending from groups that do not have to disclose donors topped $1 billion for the first time in 2020 and largely benefited Democrats, according to OpenSecrets, a nonprofit that tracks campaign finance and lobbying.
Conservatives oppose changing the rules that exempt nonprofit groups from disclosing donors. They say it would be an invasion of privacy and an attempt to shame the political beliefs of individuals and corporations, strengthening the left’s cancel culture.
“The goal here is to silence speech or make donors not want to support nonprofit groups,” said Matt Nese, vice president of the People United for Privacy Foundation, the leading opposition to requiring donor disclosures. “They like to position this as a campaign finance bill, but it is very much the exact opposite. It’s an attack on issue advocacy and nonprofits of all vocations to pursue their missions.”
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, said Monday that he will put the bill, known as the DISCLOSE Act, up for a vote this week. The measure will face certain defeat in the chamber, which is split 50-50 between the parties.
The intention to once again shine a spotlight on the issue of dark money, or contributions derived from undisclosed donors, is spearheaded by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, Rhode Island Democrat. It was introduced amid a boom in secretive money flowing into politics and accusations from the left that dark money is negatively reshaping American democracy.
Republicans have labeled Democrats as hypocrites for exploiting dark money.
During the contentious confirmation this year of Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, Republican senators accused Democrats of throwing large sums of undisclosed cash in support of her nomination.
“[Republicans] are spending an awful lot of time criticizing dark money,” Mr. Whitehouse said. “It’ll be interesting to watch them vote to protect it.”
After the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission opened the floodgates for undisclosed donors, conservatives outpaced liberals in raising dark money.
Then came Donald Trump.
Mr. Trump ignited a fire under liberal groups, which argued that they also should capitalize on secretive fundraising and spending for political opposition efforts. Democrats now eclipse Republicans in the amount of undisclosed donor cash.
Of the donations and spending officially disclosed to the FEC, liberal groups injected more than $514 million into 2020 election campaigns compared with conservatives’ $200 million, according to OpenSecrets. The top-spending dark money groups were One Nation, a Senate Republican leadership-aligned 501(c)(4) nonprofit, which doled out more than $125 million, and Majority Forward, a group aligned with Senate Democrats that spent more than $86 million.
Despite ridiculing the left, conservatives are opposed to opening the finance books of nonprofits out of fear that contributions could be weaponized against donors. Mr. Nese pointed to the case of Nikki Haley’s political nonprofit, Stand for America, whose donor list was leaked to Politico last month as the former ambassador to the United Nations contemplated a presidential bid.
Sen. Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican who opposes the bill, said courts have upheld the practice of shielding donors to nonprofit groups for the better part of a century.
He cited a 1950s Supreme Court case, NAACP v. Alabama, which found that the group could keep its membership and donors list private. A similar case last year, Americans for Prosperity Foundation v. Bonta, had the same outcome. The high court ruled that a donor disclosure law in California was unconstitutional.
“For civic organizations, I think we want to be darn sure that we are not getting into a situation where people are terrorizing donors like, frankly, what was happening to the NAACP all those years ago,” he said.