Liberal groups were responsible for more than half of the $150 million of dark money spent to influence the 2018 elections, according to a new report, marking the first time they’ve outspent the conservative counterparts since the Citizens United decision in 2010.
The report, from advocacy group Issue One, shows liberal groups spent 54 percent of the 2018 dark-money total, while conservative groups accounted for 31 percent and nonpartisan groups accounted for 15 percent.
“As we head into the 2020 presidential election, both parties must reject the opaque ways some of their wealthiest donors are influencing elections,” said Issue One CEO Nick Penniman. “Dark money is the most toxic force in politics.”
Dark-money groups, which are mostly nonprofits and trade organizations, do not have to disclose their donors. While such political spending has been legal in some forms since the 1970s, it exploded in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United.
Most of the liberal spending in 2018 came from a single group: Majority Forward, a nonprofit controlled by allies of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. The group reported $46 million in spending to the Federal Election Commission, about one-third of the total money spent. Another group linked to Schumer, Patriot Majority, spent an additional $5.7 million. Both groups were trying to defend a slew of Democratic incumbents in states President Donald Trump had won two years earlier.
Majority Forward’s heavy spending fueled a significant shift from earlier midterm election cycles. In 2010, conservative dark-money groups outspent liberal ones by an 11-to-1 margin, according to the report. In 2014, the margin was more than 3-to-1.
Much of the shift is also due to conservative groups ― including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Americans for Prosperity, which is backed by the powerful Koch Network of donors ― spending less than in previous elections, and to other conservative groups focusing on so-called issue ads instead of ads directly attacking or supporting candidates.
Former GOP Rep. Zach Wamp, a member of an advisory board for Issue One, said Democrats’ embrace of dark money was a reason for Republicans to support reforms to force disclosure.
“This should be a wake-up call to Republicans,” Wamp said in a statement. “Secret spending in elections has the potential to denigrate every candidate in every election, and candidates are losing complete control of the messages in their campaigns to these outside groups.”
While Schumer and other Democrats have called for a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United decision and other measures to force groups to disclose their donors, many have defended the use of dark-money groups, arguing the party shouldn’t unilaterally disarm in the face of Republican attacks.
While most of Majority Forward’s donors will never be revealed, the group received a $350,000 donation from Michael Arougheti, the CEO of private equity firm Ares Management and a $250,000 donation from William Conway, the co-founder of The Carlyle Group, another private equity firm, according to public records. CVS Health Corp., the parent company of the pharmacy chain, donated $250,000, and a group backed by Democratic megadonor Tom Steyer gave $200,000.
Democrats running for the 2020 nomination for president have largely sworn off corporate PAC money, and most have said they don’t want super PACs ― which are independent of any campaign ― to back them. None are expected to have the backing of dark-money groups.
Besides Majority Forward, the biggest dark-money spenders of the 2018 election included the Chamber of Commerce, which directed $12 million in spending to boost Republicans, and the National Association of Realtors, which spent $11 million on ads backing candidates in both parties.