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In a tight 2018 congressional race that is now being redone because of allegations of election fraud, Democratic candidate Dan McCready spoke out on Twitter against dark money in politics. But now he is being accused of benefiting from it.
McCready’s opponent in the do-over election, Republican Dan Bishop, called him out in a May 31 Facebook post for receiving support from dark money organizations, citing an article by the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative political journalism website.
“Turns out ‘Wrong Dan’ (McCready) got nearly $1 million in support from a Nancy Pelosi aligned dark money org in the 2018 election cycle right after he tweeted, ‘Dark money has no place in our politics,’.” Bishop’s post says.
PolitiFact North Carolina found this claim particularly interesting because McCready has been outspoken about his opposition to dark money. When we contacted his campaign, it released a statement from McCready saying he believes that “money is corrupting our politics and that we’ve got to take on special interests and the status quo, which is why if elected to Congress I will advocate for the mandatory disclosure of all donors to dark money groups.”
“Federal election law expressly prohibits candidates from coordinating with a political nonprofit on its independent expenditure spending, and the McCready campaign fully complied with the law,” Amanda Sherman, a spokesperson for McCready’s campaign, said in an email.
Sherman also said McCready has been endorsed by End Citizens United, a group dedicated to reversing the Supreme Court decision that allowed dark money groups to grow in influence, Citizens United v. FEC. So, we decided to investigate further.
It turns out McCready indeed got support from a dark money group. As for the connection to Pelosi, the truth is a little more complicated.
What is dark money?
The Center for Responsive Politics defines dark money as “political spending meant to influence the decision of a voter, where the donor is not disclosed and the source of the money is unknown.”
Dark money groups are usually either political nonprofits that are not required to disclose their donors or super PACs, which are allowed to accept unlimited donations from political nonprofits and other corporations that may or may not have disclosed their donors. Dark money organizations exist on both sides of the political spectrum -- some examples of 501(c) political nonprofits are Planned Parenthood and the National Rifle Association.
“If you look at the overall amount spent on elections, (dark money) is a relatively small part, but when you look at the most contested races, it’s when you see dark money playing a big role,” Brendan Fischer, director of federal reform at the Campaign Legal Center, said. “Dark money and outside money, generally, tend to gravitate towards the most competitive races.”
McCready’s 2018 congressional race against Republican Mark Harris was one of those tight elections that drew outside spending.
Did McCready get support from dark money?
Patriot Majority USA is a lesser known, liberal-leaning dark money nonprofit. We found that, as Bishop said, the group supported McCready in 2018.
Patriot Majority spent $944,060 against Harris. However, Patriot Majority did not send money directly to McCready’s campaign. Instead, it ran TV ads attacking Harris’ campaign for being “out of step” with North Carolina families and alleging that Harris wanted to cut Social Security and Medicare. The ads did not say anything about McCready.
Anna Massoglia, a researcher for the Center for Responsive Politics who specializes in dark money, said this is a common tactic used by these organizations.
“In many cases, the spending that we do see on political ads by dark money is more common actually against a candidate than in support of one,” Massoglia said. “...They aren’t necessarily ‘using’ dark money, I wouldn’t use that term. I would say that they benefit from dark money whether they like it or not.”
If a dark money organization decides to use their money against a candidate, there is really not much a campaign can do, said Robin Kolodny, a professor of political science at Temple University who specializes in political consultants and campaign finances.
“(Patriot Majority USA) is entirely independent of the campaign and there is nothing either candidate could do to stop the spending even if they wanted to,” Kolodny said. “The Supreme Court has held time and again that people may exercise their free speech in whatever amounts they wish.”
Is Patriot Majority USA aligned with Nancy Pelosi?
The claim that McCready is in cahoots with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was actually the subject of another fact-check by PolitiFact, based on a claim made by Harris in 2018 that was found Half True.
“It’s certainly true that Patriot Majority is a dark money group, and that they support Democrats, and that they’re aligned with Democrats,” Fischer said. “I don’t know if that’s enough to say that they’re specifically aligned with Nancy Pelosi, unless they’re using Nancy Pelosi as a stand-in for all Democrats.”
While we know that Patriot Majority USA spent almost all of its money in support of Democratic House candidates, we couldn’t find a record of Patriot Majority USA being connected to Pelosi.
The McCready campaign also received support from the House Majority PAC — a super PAC that is not considered dark money because it discloses its sponsors, according to Massoglia. House Majority PAC is known to be aligned with Pelosi. She raised money for it in 2011, when it first started. In 2018, the House Majority PAC spent $340,018 against Harris, benefiting McCready.
Bishop is correct that McCready received support from a dark money group. The McCready campaign did not take money from the group and cannot control the independent expenditures of outside organizations, but that doesn’t change the fact that the campaign benefited.
While we know that Patriot Majority USA is aligned with the Democratic Party and spent most of its money on House Democrats, we didn’t find evidence that Pelosi is aligned with Patriot Majority USA. And while the Pelosi-aligned House Majority PAC did support the McCready campaign by spending money against Harris, it is not considered a dark money group because it discloses its donors.
Therefore, we rate Bishop’s statement Mostly True.
This story was produced by the North Carolina Fact-Checking Project, a partnership of McClatchy Carolinas, the Duke University Reporters’ Lab and PolitiFact. The NC Local News Lab Fund and the International Center for Journalists provide support for the project, which shares fact-checks with newsrooms statewide. To offer ideas for fact checks, email firstname.lastname@example.org.