Why Democrats Are Suddenly Emphasizing Dark Money

WASHINGTON — Democrats plan to clash with Republicans this week over the issue of disclosing so-called “dark money” in elections, and are planning a Senate vote on Wednesday on legislation known as the Disclose Act.

This will be the first time in 10 years that the Senate will vote on the campaign finance bill originally filed in the wake of the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case. The bill, sponsored by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (DR.I.), would require all groups that spend money on elections or in support or opposition to a judicial candidate to disclose donations of $10,000 or more.

Republicans have filibusted the bill three times before — most recently in 2012. They are expected to do so again this time.

So why is a campaign finance disclosure bill getting precious time ahead of the November 8 election, while other legislative proposals — antitrust, electoral reform, and same-sex marriage protections — await their turn? The answer is quite simple: it is good politics.

“It turns out the press missed a message,” Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, told HuffPost. “It’s one of these questions in a poll, it’s overwhelming. People are sick of these campaigns and how much money is being spent. And now that Leonard Leo has crossed the Rubicon campaign with a billion-dollar effort, things are just spiraling out of control. And so it’s a bigger problem than you think. It’s a scorching hot issue in the polls.”

“It shows that this is a priority for Democrats,” Adam Bozzi, spokesman for End Citizens United, a Democratic Party-affiliated PAC that advocates campaign finance reforms, said in an email. “It’s both good policy and good politics.”

President Joe Biden even made a prepared speech on Tuesday in support of the Disclose Act, another sign that Democrats view the issue as good politics ahead of the midterm elections.

“Dark money has become so common in our elections and I believe sunlight is the best disinfectant,” Biden said at the White House, referring to a famous line from Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis to support transparency.

Recent polls show that the corrosive influence of money in politics remains a major concern for Americans. Seventy-two percent of Americans said democracy is under threat in a… end of August CBS/YouGov poll. The “influence of money in politics” topped the list of such concerns, with 86% of those who felt democracy was under threat citing it.

Threats to democracy were also the main concern in an NBC News poll released on September 18, though when they were given an open-ended question to explain what threats meant to them. Democratic respondents mostly gave answers regarding Donald Trump’s ongoing efforts to delegitimize elections.

Yet it is clear that Democrats see the corrupting influence of money in politics as an issue that excites their base and has strong cross-party appeal. It’s a big part of why they’ve combined campaign finance reform, including the Disclose Act, with voting rights in their main messaging bill, the For The People Act, in both 2019 and 2021. And they and their affiliated outside groups are making it happen. an issue in the midterm elections.

Senate Majority PAC, the leader of the Democratic Senate super PAC, partnered with End Citizens United for $1.9 million buy ad on Sept. 16, Senator Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) touched upon the contributions he has received from the oil and gas industry to rising gas costs. In House races, the Democrats’ leading super PAC, House Majority PAC, has already placed ads knocking Republicans on issues related to campaign money in races in Maine and Michigan.

There will be consequences for this vote and [End Citizens United] will work to make sure they are felt,” Bozzi said.

Republicans, however, remain both opposed to the disclosure bill and baffled as to why Democrats are voting on it.

I think they were looking for some kind of stink bomb votes going into an election that they think will put Republicans on the defensive, but I don’t think this really qualifies as that,” Senator John Thune (RS .D.), the No. 3 Republican in the Senate, told HuffPost. “It’s kind of an obscure issue, actually.”

Current campaign finance disclosure rules require candidate and party committees, PACs and super PACs, and 527 nonprofit groups to disclose their donors, but do not cover donations to nonprofit organizations organized under Section 501(c)(4) or 501(c)(6) of the Tax Code when they spend money to specifically advocate for the election or defeat of a federal election candidate.

This lack of disclosure emerged as a problem after the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United freed corporations, unions and other groups, including certain nonprofits, to receive and spend unlimited amounts on election efforts. Following the decision, undisclosed nonprofit election spending, known as “dark money,” rose north of $100 million in each of the last five elections.

Democrats introduced the Disclose Act in 2010 in an immediate response to the court’s decision, but it failed to twice clear GOP filibusters with votes of 57-41 and 59-39. The last time it voted in 2012, it again took the 60 votes it took to release a filibuster by 53 to 45 votes. Most recently, Republicans blocked a unanimous consent request to pass the bill in 2021.

A major change in the Disclose Act since the last vote in 2012 is the extension of disclosure requirements to group spending on court appointments. This was added to the bill by Whitehouse in response to the multi-million dollar campaigns of conservative groups associated with Federalist Society co-founder Leonard Leo, who aided the GOP blockade of 2016 nominee Merrick Garland and promoted the nominations of Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.

Leo, the architect of the GOP’s takeover of the Supreme Court, has since made headlines ProPublica and Lever News reported that a group he leads has received a $1.6 billion donation from an obscure conservative donor — a donation that would otherwise be unknown without ProPublica’s report.

While dark election money spending was initially dominated by Republican-affiliated groups thanks to the large spending of fossil fuel billionaire titans Charles and David Koch and the late casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, Democratic-allied groups have since taken the lead in the past two election cycles.

Despite this newfound benefit, no Republican lawmakers are backing legislation to mandate disclosure for this kind of campaign spending, Biden noted.

“I recognize it’s a matter for both parties,” Biden said, “but here’s the key difference: Democrats in Congress support greater openness and accountability. Republicans in Congress haven’t yet. I hope they come along.”