Crossroads GPS has assailed Democratic Sen. Mark Udall for shortchanging Colorado residents with his votes on health insurance; Patriot Majority USA has gone after the Republican Senate candidate in Arkansas, Tom Cotton, for being a supposed shill of the insurance industry and opposing a farm bill.
This is standard fare in the midterm elections, where spending could exceed $5 billion and outside groups specialize in attack ads. Trouble is that Colorado voters won’t know which special interests financed the anti-Udall message nor will Arkansans know which vested interests ponied up for the attacks on Cotton.
This is dark money, which allows both sides to set up supposed social welfare organizations that are a front for political partisans: Crossroads GPS is the so-called social welfare arm of Republican strategist Karl Rove’s campaign-finance empire, and Patriot Majority USA is closely linked with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s political money apparatus. Already $100 million of dark money has been spent in the 2014 congressional elections, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
There is a simple rationale for giving dark money rather than making upfront donations to political action committees, which require disclosure. Dark spending provides the influence that comes with big money without the accountability or the attention from critics.
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When the Republican Governors Association inadvertently disclosed the identities of secret dark money contributors, it embarrassed major companies such as Microsoft, Wal-Mart and Aetna, which each gave $250,000, believing their donations were cloaked in anonymity.
When he fought campaign-finance reform years ago, Kentucky Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell suggested the real antidote was disclosure. Now he says forcing disclosure would run afoul of the First Amendment and would harass groups such as the Humane Society. Yet the Humane Society only would be affected if it got involved in electoral politics. In its two landmark campaign-finance decisions, the Supreme Court embraced disclosure.
The 1976 Buckley ruling specifically said disclosure of campaign contributions deters corruption. In Citizens United in 2010, which opened the floodgates of money, eight justices nevertheless endorsed full disclosure that “allows voters to make informed choices in the political marketplace.”
In North Carolina alone, Crossroads spent $3 million before Labor Day just on broadcast airtime – not including cable or production expenses – according to Kantar Media. These groups get to take secret money by asserting that the majority of their efforts are for social welfare. Nobody believes that.
The Internal Revenue Service is considering rules that would crack down on these excesses. And next year, the Securities and Exchange Commission might, if Chair Mary Jo White goes along, force publicly traded corporations to reveal all political spending to their shareholders. If Republicans win control of Congress they are likely to move to defund any IRS or SEC enforcement. One thing is certain, however: When it counts, the political beneficiaries of those secret donors will be made well aware of their benefactors and their needs.