In tight Senate races, dark money backs Dems, hammers GOP

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Marsha Blackburn (left) is a top target of Majority Forward, a dark money group attempting to get Democrats elected to the Senate. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

dark money has mostly been on the side of Republicans in recent election cycles, a relatively new liberal outside group has dominated dark money spending during the 2018 midterms, effectively injecting millions into crucial U.S. Senate races.

Majority Forward — a 501(c)(4) nonprofit that does not disclose its donors — has spent $32 million in opposition of Republican Senate candidates during the 2018 election. In total, the group has dished out more than $40 million to help Democratic candidates, by far the most of any dark money group this cycle.

Things were much different during the 2016 election when five of the six biggest dark money spenders supported Republicans. The biggest dark money spender was the NRA Institute for Legislative Action at more than $35 million. The NRA’s political nonprofit has been quiet so far during the 2018 midterms, spending just over $1 million as the NRA fails to pull in cash.

Incorporated in 2015, Majority Forward got off to a fast start, spending $3.4 million in its first year. The emergent group — which is closely tied to the Senate Majority PAC and Democratic leadership — spent $10 million to support Democratic candidates during the 2016 election, including $5.7 million in unsuccessful opposition to Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.).

The dark money group’s spending shot up this cycle, and with more funding comes more ads. Majority Forward dominated the airwaves from Sept. 18 to Oct. 15, airing its ads 29,050 times in nine competitive states, according to a recent Wesleyan Media Project (WMP) report produced in partnership with the Center for Responsive Politics.

Each of the group’s top targets are Senate candidates entrenched in close races. Majority Forward has put $7.4 million against Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and spent $1.7 million in support of her Democratic opponent Phil Bredesen.

The group has spent more than $9 million in the Florida Senate race, half of which is explicitly in opposition to Rick Scott. It’s also put at least $2 million in opposition of Republican candidates in Missouri, Nevada, Montana, Indiana and Arizona.

Majority Forward teamed up with another dark money group, VoteVets, for two of its attack ads, including one against Arizona Senate hopeful Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.).

According to WMP’s analysis of broadcast television ads aired from Sept. 18 to Oct. 15, nearly 61 percent of ads aiding Democratic Senate candidates came from dark money sources, compared to just 7.7 percent for Republicans.

The trend is much different for House candidates, where nearly 85 percent of support for Republicans comes from partially-disclosed groups that accept contributions from dark money sources.

Conservative outside spending has seemingly shifted from dark money sources to the Congressional Leadership Fund (CLF) super PAC, which has spent a whopping $92 million in opposition to House Democrats. CLF discloses its donors but also accepts millions from dark money groups such as American Action Network. 

So far, outside spending from political nonprofits favors Democratic candidates over Republicans for the first election cycle since 2008. These figures only include outside spending disclosed to the FEC, but do not include “issue ads” that don’t explicitly endorse or oppose a candidate and are not required to be disclosed to the FEC.

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