Senate campaign 2014: Brought to you by 'dark money' like never before

Campaign spending by 'dark money' groups is eight times higher than about this time in the last midterm campaign cycle, and it's mainly going to TV ads in races that could tip control of the US Senate.

Gerry Broome/AP
Sen. Kay Hagan (D) of North Carolina makes a statement during a televised debate with Republican candidate for Senate Thom Tillis in Research Triangle Park, N.C., on Sept. 3. Senator Hagan has been pounded by TV ads financed by Americans for Prosperity, an outside group not required to disclose its donors.

As the campaign sprint for control of Congress heats up, a major share of the ad spending is coming from untraceable sources – people or corporations that want to influence the election anonymously.

So far this campaign cycle, some $51.3 million has already been spent by such “dark money” sources on campaign-related efforts – notably on TV ads tied to races that could determine which political party controls the US Senate for the next two years.

That’s more than was spent by dark money groups at this point in the 2012 campaign cycle – even though that one included a campaign for president as well as one for Congress.

And it’s about eight times the dark money amount seen by this time in the last “midterm” cycle – when only control of Congress was at stake in federal elections. All these numbers come from the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks election spending using data filed with the Federal Election Commission (FEC).

And the big rush is still to come.

“Dark money spending in the 2014 midterms will easily match or surpass the spending records set in the last presidential elections,” predicts Robert Maguire, a campaign-finance researcher at the center.

By the time the congressional race comes to a close on Nov. 4, the money from undisclosed sources could surge to double the roughly $300 million seen in 2012, or more, Mr. Maguire writes in a new analysis of the trends.

This comes as fundraising directly by political candidates looks relatively flat compared with past election cycles.

The rise of donors who choose to hide their identity is a sign that parallels the broader rise of “outside money,” campaign advertising efforts that are created by interested groups distinct from the candidates and political parties.

The role of such independent money is controversial, because many Americans worry about undue influence by a relatively few wealthy people on the nation’s political discourse and outcomes. It’s also firing up critics because Supreme Court rulings since 2010 allow unlimited amounts of such money to flow to outside groups – whereas donations to the candidates have caps set by federal law.

Both conservatives and liberals are active in the dark money efforts.

On the conservative side, the group Americans for Prosperity, part of a network backed by the billionaire Koch Brothers, has stepped up its activity compared with past election cycles. And on the liberal side, the union-backed Patriot Majority has reported as much spending in 2014 as in all of the 2012 cycle.

Is it dangerous for money to enter the political fray without disclosing who gave it?

Many experts on campaign law say it’s not a problem if individuals give modest sums that are untraceable, but that the public should be able to know the identities of people who put vast sums into play. That transparency helps voters to judge how much credence to give to political ads, or to compare an elected official’s voting record with the interests of big donors.

Floyd Abrams, a lawyer specializing in First Amendment rights of free speech, made this point Thursday in a discussion on campaign finance, hosted by the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington.

Whether the money is supporting a candidate or a ballot initiative, the public arguably has an interest in knowing the identity of a major promoter, Mr. Abrams argued.

Based on that line of thinking, one of the goals of campaign-finance reforms over the years has been not only to regulate the amounts of money donors can give to campaigns but also to make the process more transparent.

Dark money has been growing lately, though, as more big donors channel their contributions through nonprofit organizations that are exempt from the disclosure rules. Money has surged into 501(c)(4) “social welfare” organizations, in particular.

In some cases, transparency is simply delayed, such as when ads run just before an election. Voters won’t be able to see reports disclosing the donors behind the ad until after balloting is over.

The amounts spent are partly hidden, too. Some ads are aired so early in the campaign cycle that they don’t have to be reported to the FEC. 

And if the ads they run make false claims – something that’s not uncommon – it’s hard to hold the groups accountable.

One dark money group, the conservative American Future Fund, is nothing more than “a mailbox” in an Iowa UPS store, as far as any ordinary US citizen can tell, Maguire said this week at a conference on campaign finance.

Yet it accounted for $25 million in political spending in 2012.

“There is nobody to go to and say, 'answer for this ad,' ” Maguire said at a conference this week sponsored by the Sunlight Foundation and ReThink Media.

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