The Latest in Dark Money: Oligarchs Form Their Own Shadow Parties

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With three weeks of spending left to go, 2014 is already the most expensive midterm election cycle in history. The Wesleyan Media Project reported this week that spending on advertising alone is poised to break the $1 billion mark. Some of that money is being raised through traditional channels — by candidates and party committees — but in the Citizens United era, an increasing share is being funneled through outside groups, many of which don’t disclose their donors.

To keep you up to date with the latest, we’ve rounded up some key campaign finance stories from the past week.

Dark Money Explained

Last Friday, Nicholas Confessore reported for the The New York Times that more than half of all ad spending this cycle — 55 percent — has come through dark money groups.

Accompanying the article was this brief video explaining what dark money is and detailing its rise to prominence. It’s a good video to share with people who aren’t yet familiar with the ins and outs of campaign financing.

Dark Money and the Fight for the Senate

Those opposed to bringing greater transparency to our campaign finance system argue that dark money’s impact is exaggerated because it represents only a fraction of overall spending. But the raw numbers understate the importance of those dollars as their impact is tightly focused on specific  pieces of contested terrain. As Paul Blumenthal reported this week for The Huffington Post, “it is increasingly evident that this spending is meant to influence only a handful of races.”

According to a review by The Huffington Post of campaign finance records collected by the Federal Election Commission, the Center for Responsive Politics and press releases and news reports regarding spending by these groups, the Senate races in Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Kentucky and North Carolina account for nearly half of all dark money spent to target 2014 candidates.

Overall, expenditures by groups not disclosing their donors has soared to at least $190 million in the 2014 campaign. The five Senate races with the most dark money have attracted $92.8 million of this total, while the top 10 Senate races account for $130 million.

Shadow Parties

Writing in The New York Times Magazine, Jim Rutenberg offers a big-picture view of how virtually unlimited campaign cash has changed the very nature of our political process. Wealthy donors effectively create their own shadow parties to advance personal agendas. The result of Citizens United was “a massive power shift, from the party bosses to the rich individuals who ran the super PACs.

Almost overnight, traditional party functions — running TV commercials, setting up field operations, maintaining voter databases, even recruiting candidates — were being supplanted by outside groups. And the shift was partly because of one element of McCain-Feingold that remains: the ban on giving unlimited soft money to parties. In the party universe, rich players like the Wylys, Tom Steyer or the Kochs were but single planets among many. The party bosses had to balance their interests against those who brought just as much to the table in the form of money or votes. A party platform has to account for both the interests of the oil industry and those of the ethanol industry; those of the casino industry and those of the anti-gambling religious right; those of Wall Street and those of labor.

With the advent of Citizens United, any players with the wherewithal, and there are surprisingly many of them, can start what are in essence their own political parties, built around pet causes or industries and backing politicians uniquely answerable to them.

Dark Money Works In Mysterious Ways

Democrat Al Franken seems to hold a commanding lead over his Republican challenger in Minnesota’s US Senate Race. He’s ahead by 18 points according to the most recent poll, and by 11.5 points in Real Clear Politics’ polling average.

Given that advantage, political observers are unsure why an Ohio-based dark money group called the Hometown Freedom Action Network recently dropped $340,000 into the campaign, so far the largest media buy in the race by an outside group. As Minnesota Public Radio’s Catharine Richert put it, “with far more competitive Senate races around the country, it is not clear why the group has decided to spend here.”

Who's Buying our Midterm Elections?

A Tangled Web

The Hometown Freedom Action Network is just one front group in a tangled web of Ohio-based PACs and nonprofits tied to a handful of veteran Republican operatives and tea party activists, according to a report by Stephen Koff in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. They include A Public Voice, which operated as Protect Your Vote Ohio in 2012, and the Concrete and Portland Cement Political Action Network, which “so far appears to have received no money from the concrete industry.” This story is impossible to summarize — read the whole thing for a sense of just how interconnected these shadowy groups can be.

Big Donor Cash Floods Party Committees

Among other outcomes, last year’s Supreme Court ruling in McCutcheon v FEC struck down individual limits on donations to party committees. As Paul Blumenthal reported this week for The Huffington Post, “this opened the door to the creation of super-sized joint fundraising committees linking multiple candidates and party committees and allowing a single donor to cut one large check to be divided among participants.” He adds that “these super-joint committees are just now beginning to raise these huge checks,” and that both parties are taking advantage by “raising historic sums from single donors for the 2014 midterm elections”

Are The Wall Street Journal and Fox News Aiding GOP Fundraising?

At The New Republic, Alec MacGillis notes that the conservative opinion page of The Wall Street Journal has been “full of praise for Harry Reid and the Democrats’ 2014 campaign operation. One after another Journal opinion writer marveled at the Democrats’ fundraising and compared them favorably to their lackluster Republican counterparts.”

MacGillis argues that this was an intentional ploy to stimulate conservative fundraising:

The Journal is the newspaper of the country’s business elite, which in most industries still leans Republican. These pieces were landing on C-suite desks with a message that had all the subtlety of a public-radio fundraising-drive. Guys, the message read, we are to our surprise not as far ahead in the money game as we expected to be for the midterms. Please send checks, pronto.

It appears that the WSJ pundits focused only on disclosed donations — where Democrats are ahead this cycle — and ignored outside spending, where the GOP enjoys a significant advantage.

Media Matters researcher Meagan Hatcher-Mays noticed a similar dynamic in Fox News’ coverage of this cycle’s campaign spending. She wrote this week: “Fox News is claiming that Democratic campaigns and supporters are vastly outspending their Republican counterparts during this election cycle, a suggestion that appears to… ignore the influence of ‘dark money’ spending that favors the GOP.”

Singing Out Against Dark Money

BillMoyers.com doesn’t endorse candidates for public office, but we can report that this campaign ad, by candidate Rick Weiland — a singing cowboy running for South Dakota’s US Senate seat on a shoestring budget — has become something of a viral sensation on the Internet. And it’s kind of catchy…

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Joshua Holland was a senior digital producer for BillMoyers.com and now writes for The Nation. He’s the author of The Fifteen Biggest Lies About the Economy (and Everything Else the Right Doesn’t Want You to Know about Taxes, Jobs and Corporate America) (Wiley: 2010), and host of Politics and Reality Radio. Follow him on Twitter: @JoshuaHol.

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