Election 2014: Deep-Pocket Dark Money Bulldozing Democracy

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Election 2014: Deep-Pocket Dark Money Bulldozing Democracy

'The 2014 midterms may well mark the election cycle in which the small donor got left behind,' analyst predicts

"As the post-Citizens United campaign finance system matures, we’re seeing evidence that the traditional campaign apparatus has been overtaken by shadow counterparts," says Sheila Krumholz of the Center for Responsive Politics. (Credit: Jeremy Kunz/flickr/cc)

In the final days of the midterm campaign, shadowy outside groups that wield heavy influence but don't disclose their donors are spending tens of millions of dollars on attack ads, mailers, and negative automated telephone calls aimed at tipping the balance in tight races across the nation.

Overall ad spending has broken $1 billion in federal elections and state governors’ races, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), which also predicted last week that the 2014 election cycle will cost at least $3.67 billion—slightly more than the 2010 election, which tallied $3.63 billion. In the same analysis, CRP noted that "[t]he 2014 midterms may well mark the election cycle in which the small donor got left behind," and that outside money has played an "outsized role" in this year's campaigns.

"Cash from unknown sources is flooding the most important races, while state politicians have instituted new barriers to the ballot box for millions of Americans. Regardless of who wins, the integrity of our elections has been undermined."
—Lawrence Norden and Wendy Weiser,
Brennan Center's Democracy Program

"As the post-Citizens United campaign finance system matures, we’re seeing evidence that the traditional campaign apparatus has been overtaken by shadow counterparts," said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics. "These unaccountable actors give lie to the notion that they are independent of the candidates, and the negative nature of their participation will likely further suppress turnout that is already expected to be low."

This backs up findings released Monday by the Brennan Center for Justice, which documented record spending in 11 key U.S. Senate races, dominated by record-breaking outside spending, 58 percent of it spent by so-called dark money groups that do not have to disclose their donors. Such groups have spent at least $200 million nationally this election cycle, much of it in places with close races like North Carolina, which boasts the largest dollar amount of dark money as of October 29: $36 million.

According to CRP: "Overall, 38 percent of the ads bought by outside interest groups were bought by 'dark money' organizations that do not disclose their donors to the voters they seek to influence. In the heated battle for control of the Senate, nearly half—48.6 percent—of the ads were bought by such groups, most of them conservative. In fact, 48 percent of pro-Republican interest group ads in 2014 came from dark money groups, compared to 23 percent of pro-Democratic groups’ ads."

What's more, as the New York Times revealed on Sunday, "[m]uch of the advertising is being timed to ensure that no voter will know who is paying for it until after the election on Tuesday."

The Times reported:

Some of the groups are "super PACs" that did not exist before Labor Day but have since spent heavily on political advertising, adding to the volatility of close Senate and House races.

Others formed earlier in the year but remained dormant until recently, reporting few or no contributions in recent filings with the Federal Election Commission, only to unleash six- and seven-figure advertising campaigns as Election Day draws near. Yet more spending is coming from nonprofit organizations with bland names that have popped up in recent weeks but appear to have no life beyond being a conduit for the ads.

The groups’ last-minute fusillade of attacks helped push outside spending in races around the country to an average of at least $20 million a day last week. Total spending on Senate races reached $200 million in October alone, significantly more than in the same period before the 2010 midterms.

...The onslaught shows how fast and aggressive strategists and donors in both parties have become about using the array of tools now available for pouring a lot of late cash into races. The efforts are a byproduct of court rulings like Citizens United and lax enforcement by the election commission and the Internal Revenue Service.

It's not only in congressional and gubernatorial races that groups are dropping major cash. The Brennan Center and the non-profit Justice at Stake revealed last week that with less than a week until Election Day, special interest groups had dramatically increased TV ad spending to influence state Supreme Court races in Illinois, Michigan, Montana, North Carolina, and Ohio. Outside groups have spent nearly $2.1 million on TV ad buys in these states for the November general election, the groups' analysis showed, with nearly $1 million spent over the last week.

"Special interest groups have realized that it doesn’t take much money to reshape an entire state court compared to high-cost elections for statewide political offices," said Brennan Center attorney Alicia Bannon. "At the same time, judges are forced to keep pace with deep-pocketed out of state groups instead of ruling on cases. It’s a lose-lose for judges and voters alike."

With Tuesday's elections on track to be the most expensive midterms in history, it's worth considering the magnitude of money spent and how it could be put to different use, investigative correspondent Chris Frates wrote for CNN on Monday.

"Four billion bucks is a boatload of cash," Frates said, rounding up CRP's estimate of $3.67 billion. "It's 10 times more than the government has committed to fighting Ebola in West Africa and would be enough to build 100 treatment centers and run them for years. That kind of money could also buy 25 F-18 fighter jets, pay for more than 12,000 students' K-12 education and have enough left over to produce a summer blockbuster."

At the Huffington Post on Monday, the Brennan Center's Lawrence Norden and Wendy Weiser note how recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions have changed the Election Day landscape to favor monied interests: "When the Court dismantled our laws regulating money in politics and gutted core voting rights protections, we knew those decisions would have consequences," they write. "But only now are we seeing the full scope of their impact: a return to pre-Watergate, pre-Civil Rights era practices. Cash from unknown sources is flooding the most important races, while state politicians have instituted new barriers to the ballot box for millions of Americans. Regardless of who wins, the integrity of our elections has been undermined."

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