Reform-minded Democrats have long held up "dark money" — political money that can't be traced to its source — as a symptom of what's wrong with politics in Washington. But while House Democrats this winter passed a bill to end the secrecy shielding donors behind unregulated dark money contributions, liberal activist groups now deploy those funds to boost the party's candidates in the 2020 elections.
A recent study by the government reform group Issue One found that in the 2018 midterm elections, politically active tax-exempt groups spent about $150 million in secret money, and Democratic-leaning groups accounted for 54% of it.
Issue One's Michael Beckel said the researchers tried to identify the donors behind the groups, but "we turned over every rock we could, and we could only identify about two of every nine dollars that these groups had raised."
One tax-exempt group, Majority Forward, spent about one-third of all the secret money. The group mainly targets Republican Senate candidates — and some Democrats see secret contributions of five, six or seven figures as the pragmatic choice.
"I have no misgivings," said Mark Riddle, executive director of Future Majority, a tax-exempt group financed by unregulated secret money. "On election night 2018, I didn't hear anybody go, 'Oh jeez, we won! But gosh, wasn't all that stuff really bad that helped everybody win?' "
Future Majority ran an ad in 2018 that attacked the dark-money system. In the ad, aimed at disaffected millennials, a young woman praises candidates who take a pledge to clean up politics. Another woman asks, "What about dark money?" She answers, "No dark money. Full disclosure of donors, and lobbyists."
Future Majority intends to concentrate on messaging, branding and strategic advice, mostly in Midwestern states. Riddle said, "I think looking at the best tactics and the best words and the best images is going to be really, really important in going against one of the best marketers in Donald Trump."
But once that's accomplished, he said he would rather not have secret money. "I actually do believe that House Bill 1 is maybe the most important piece of legislation that can be passed." he said.
H.R. 1 is the reform bill passed by the House; it includes a provision to require disclosure of contributions of $10,000 or more to politically active tax-exempt groups.
Political strategists began focusing on tax-exempt groups in the mid-1990s, especially on the right, a trend that peaked in the 2008 elections. The Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling in 2010 and the rise of the Tea Party movement helped popularize tax-exempt politicking.
Most of the best-known secret-money groups are conservative, including the National Rifle Association, the Koch network's Americans for Prosperity and the party establishment's Crossroads GPS.
But in the wider perspective, the political parties have been fighting over this same issue since the 1980s. It's about how to get and use "soft money," money that's exempt from both the contribution limits and the transparency of the campaign finance laws.
Robin Kolodny, a political scientist at Temple University who studies the history of campaign finance, said there's a pattern to it.
"One party stretches the law, gets away with it, and then the other party just goes ahead and does the same thing," she said. "And then eventually the FEC [Federal Election Commission] will just say, 'Yeah, obviously, I guess this must be OK.' "
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Last year's midterm elections marked a turning point in big-money politics. Liberals have overtaken conservatives in one type of so-called dark money - that is, money from secret donors to tax-exempt groups that's spent on explicitly political messaging. At the same time, congressional Democrats are pushing to make these contributions transparent, as NPR's Peter Overby reports.
PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Most of the best-known secret money groups are conservative - the National Rifle Association, Americans for Prosperity, Crossroads GPS and others. So how much do Democrats want to expose this kind of politicking? H.R.1, which would force tax-exempt groups to disclose their big donors, was the first bill passed by the Democratic-majority House this year.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Congress is totally corrupt.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Eighty-six percent of people agree.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) That means whoever you vote for, they're going to screw you over.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) I feel totally helpless.
OVERBY: This pro-Democratic TV ad ran in the 2018 midterm elections.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) No suppression, no gerrymandering, no foreign influence...
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) What about dark money?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) No dark money. Full disclosure of donors and lobbyists.
OVERBY: The slam on dark money came from Future Majority, a tax-exempt group that uses dark money. It plans to spend $60 million in the 2020 elections. Conservatives embraced tax-exempt groups starting around the 2008 campaign. The Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling in 2010 made the groups more versatile. Democrats have mostly scorned them. But Mark Riddle, director of Future Majority, is among the Democratic pragmatists.
MARK RIDDLE: I have no misgivings. On election night in 2018, I didn't hear anybody go, oh, geez, we won. But gosh, wasn't all that stuff really bad that helped everybody win (laughter)?
OVERBY: Riddle said Future Majority will concentrate on messaging, branding and strategic advice, mostly in the Midwestern states.
RIDDLE: I think looking at the best tactics and the best words and the best images is going to be really, really important going against one of the great marketers in Donald Trump.
OVERBY: But after that, he said, he'd rather not have secret money.
RIDDLE: I actually do believe that the House Bill 1 is, maybe, the most important piece of legislation that can be passed.
OVERBY: In the 2018 elections, the secret money groups spent about $150 million on explicitly political activities. That's according to a report by the government reform group, Issue One. It said about one-third of that spending was done by one group, Majority Forward, which mainly attacks Republican Senate candidates with ads like this one.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) Martha McSally is lying through her teeth. Dangerous lies with dire consequences...
OVERBY: Issue One's Michael Beckel said researchers worked to identify the donors behind the groups.
MICHAEL BECKEL: We turned over every rock we could, and we could only identify about $2 of every $9 that these groups had raised.
OVERBY: But here's the long view. The political parties have been fighting over the same issue since the 1980s. It's how to get and use soft money - money that's exempt from the contribution limits and from the transparency of campaign finance laws. Sometimes a strategy starts with one party, sometimes with the other. Robin Kolodny is a political scientist at Temple University in Philadelphia. She studies the history of campaign finance.
ROBIN KOLODNY: One party stretches the law, gets away with it. And then the other party just goes ahead and does the same thing. And then eventually, the FEC will just say yeah, obviously. I guess this must be OK.
OVERBY: And now, this variety of secret money has taken root on both sides.
Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.
(SOUNDBITE OF SLOWLY ROLLING CAMERA'S "CROSSINGS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.