The new Democratic House majority is making campaign finance overhaul a central part of its sweeping good governance agenda, capitalizing on an anti-money-in-politics platform that many candidates rode to Congress.
But when it comes to the big-money world of outside spending, over which candidates have little control, it appears that liberal groups had a banner year in 2018.
For the first time since the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which struck down campaign spending limitations for corporations and unions, liberal “dark money” groups outspent conservative groups, according to a new report from Issue One that analyzed data from the Center for Responsive Politics.
Dark money groups spent $150 million in the 2018 midterms. And unlike super PACs, which must disclose their donors to the Federal Election Commission, these politically active nonprofits are not required to do so.
Liberal groups spent about 54 percent of that total in the 2018 cycle, with conservative groups only spending 31 percent. Nonpartisan or bipartisan groups made up the remaining 15 percent. The liberal dominance is a marked shift. In 2016, conservative groups that don’t have to disclose their donors outspent liberal groups 4-to-1, according to Issue One.
The biggest liberal spender was a group that plays in Senate races. Majority Forward, founded in 2015 as an affiliate of the Democratic super PAC Senate Majority PAC, reported spending about $46 million in 2018. Previously published Issue One research dug into the group’s 2016 990 Form to reveal that some of its top donors have included labor unions, companies, nonprofits and political action committees. According to Issue One's analysis of all dark money spending since 2010, Majority Forward is the fifth biggest dark money spender. (The biggest is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.)
Majority Forward was the top-spending outside group in the Montana Senate election last year, where Democratic Sen. Jon Tester defeated Republican Matt Rosendale. The group spent about $4.2 million in the race. Its first ad accused Rosendale of dressing up as a rancher and showed an actor wearing white boots, unpacking a saddle from the trunk of a Jaguar and struggling to carry hay. The spots were part of the Democrats’ broader strategy to use Rosendale as a foil against Tester, who was running on his image as a longtime Montana farmer.
Despite benefiting from that outside spending, Tester has been vocal in the Senate about increasing transparency in campaign spending.
“You’ve got groups with really nice-sounding names dumping millions of dollars into these campaigns that quite frankly aren’t being totally honest,” Tester told CQ’s Shawn Zeller on a podcast last month. “They’re not being honest with the people about who’s paying for the ads, and the ads stretch the truth a long ways, let’s just put it that way.”
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Majority Forward has already started investing in 2020 with a $600,000 TV ad campaign that launched last week targeting Republican senators up for re-election next year over the shutdown.
The other biggest-spending political nonprofits in 2018, Issue One found, included the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which generally backs Republicans; the National Association of Realtors, which spent for Democrats and Republicans; Americans for Prosperity, which is allied with the Koch brothers; Patients for Affordable Drugs Action, a super PAC that spent for Democrats and Republicans; and Patriot Majority USA, which is allied with Democratic leadership.
Issue One noted that the advantage liberal groups had over their conservative counterparts in 2018 spending may have been related to some conservative groups changing their structures to avoid having to report their spending to the FEC. The report specifically cites Crossroads GPS, which used to be a top spender but didn’t report spending in 2016 and 2018.
In its place, a new group called One Nation, which included some Crossroads GPS officials, became one of the most active spenders in the 2018 cycle. Since it ran so-called issue ads, it did not have to report its spending. It also funneled money to its affiliated super PAC, the Senate Leadership Fund, which does have to report its political ad spending.