‘Dark money’ groups funneled millions to powerful super PACs during 2018 midterms

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(AP Photo/Jon Elswick, File)

Even in the most expensive midterm election cycle ever, outside spending reported by “dark money” 501(c)(4) and 501(c)(6) nonprofits was surprisingly sparse, falling to $126 million from $161 million in 2014.

Don’t let that fool you. Rather than spend it themselves, dark money groups instead chose to funnel their funds through super PACs, with which they are often closely linked or directly connected.

Groups that do not disclose their donors and shell corporations gave more than $176 million to super PACs and outside spending hybrid PACs during the 2018 election cycle, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.

The surge in dark money giving came as super PACs spent nearly $818 million in the 2018 elections, a monumental increase from the $345 million they spent in the previous midterm cycle.

The top outside spending super PAC this cycle, Congressional Leadership Fund, also got the most dark money, receiving more than $26 million from the closely-linked American Action Network. The same officials run the two conservative groups and share a Washington, D.C. office.

Similarly, conservative dark money group One Nation gave more than $18.5 million to the neighboring Senate Leadership Fund, with which it shares an office and president.

The Democrat-aligned Senate Majority PAC, the second-largest outside spending group this cycle, got $6.8 million from dark money sources, including $4.5 million from the Greater New York Hospital Association, a trade association that does not disclose its donors. The super PAC also took in $1.4 million from the closely-tied Majority Forward, by far the top dark money spender this cycle.

Looking beyond the biggest political players, several super PACs directly connected with political nonprofits got significant funds, if not all their money, from the corresponding non-disclosing nonprofit.

One prominent example of this is Democrat-supporting Environment America Action Fund, which got pretty much all of its money from dark money sources and more than $14 million from its own subsidiaries.

Even super PACs supporting single candidates get in on the dark money action. Hometown Freedom Action Network, a single-candidate super PAC supporting Tommy Pope — a Republican who lost the primary in South Carolina’s 5th District race — got nearly all of its $3.4 million from Citizens for A Working America, a non-disclosing group.

Change Now PAC emerged as a large spender seemingly out of nowhere, shelling out $7.9 million to aid House Democrats despite popping up a few months before the election. The group took nearly $3 million from dark money group Sixteen Thirty Fund and another $1.8 million from partially-disclosing groups, which include fellow super PACs that accept dark money.

In total, 33 super PACs and hybrid PACs received more than $1 million from dark money sources.

These groups are allowed to spend unlimited sums on advertisements and other literature supporting or opposing candidates. Super PACs must disclose their donors, but large givers can shield their identities by contributing to dark money nonprofits that funnel the funds to super PACs. Those super PACs then identify the respective dark money group as the donor.

“It is clear that any long-term solution to the dark money problem will require addressing transfers between groups,” said Tyler Cole, legislative director at Issue One, a cross-partisan Washington, D.C. group that aims to reduce the influence of big money on politics. “Real disclosure requires identifying what individual donors are behind the groups that spend millions to influence American elections.”

It’s possible dark money’s influence is greater than CRP’s numbers convey, as super PACs also accept funds from fellow partially-disclosing groups — groups that take money from dark money sources. Contributions from these groups could be dark money, but it’s nearly impossible to tell.

Additionally, dark money groups have been known to spend funds on issue advocacy advertisements that they do not register with the FEC.

Though not considered dark money in CRP data, “Pop-up PACs” are a new kind of strategy to dodge donor disclosure. These super PACs waited until Oct. 18 to spend for or against candidates, allowing them to hide their donors until after election day.

“The American public is fed up with our broken political system and their anger is starting to boil over,” Cole said. “Political consultants and dark money groups know this, but they are still not willing to engage in meaningful disclosure.”

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