Liberal ‘dark money’ group gets an early start targeting GOP Senators ahead of 2020

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Republican Sens. David Perdue (Ga.) and Cory Gardner (Colo.) are top targets of the leading liberal “dark money” group, Majority Forward. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The 2020 election cycle is already underway, and it’s not just about the presidential race.

A series of ads purchased by Majority Forward — a non-disclosing 501(c)(4) nonprofit linked to Democratic leadership in the Senate — gives an early peek at which Senate seats are in the sights of Democrats eager to take over the upper chamber.

The “dark money” group announced plans to go after after Sens. Cory Gardner (Colo.), Susan Collins (Maine), Thom Tillis (N.C.), David Perdue (Ga.), Martha McSally (Ariz.) and Joni Ernst (Iowa) with a $600,000 ad buy in mid-January, attacking each incumbent Senator over their role in the 35-day government shutdown. All six face reelection in 2020.

Majority Forward has spent at least $234,387 in television ads against the vulnerable Republicans in January, documented in FCC records compiled using the Center for Responsive Politics’ political ad database.

Claiming the honor of top dark money spender during the 2018 cycle, Majority Forward shelled out roughly $46 million in outside spending reported to the FEC. However, the group’s newest wave of ad spending is not required to be disclosed with the FEC as they are so-called “issue ads” — which technically do not explicitly support or oppose a candidate — and are not being run within 30 days of a primary election or 60 days of a general election.

Each ad follows an identical formula, noting the “the longest ever” shutdown caused issues with government food inspections and plane flights, along with an issue relating to the targeted state and blaming the respective Senator for the length of the shutdown. Each ad links the respective target to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who repeatedly blocked bills to reopen the government and is also up for reelection in 2020.

In a classic “issue ad” fashion, the ad tells viewers to call their Senator and “demand an end to the shutdown.” But the ads are about more than the shutdown, as indicated by FCC records analyzed using CRP’s political ad data.

The largest single ad buy that can be traced to public FCC records filed as of the date of publication — $41,125 against Collins — lists the “political issue of national importance” as “Susan Collins US Senate,” alluding to the impending 2020 election. Though handwritten notes going in more depth about the ads’ theme being the government shutdown, attacking Collins continues to be a resounding theme throughout. “Susan Collins siding with party leaders who refuse to reopen govt. Tell Susan Collin to put Maine first and demand an end to the shutdown,” the FCC records read.

Another ad buy targeting Ernst goes into even more detail, albeit in handwritten notes. The standard National Association of Broadcaster (NAB) filing lists “Joni Ernst US Senate” and “Majority Forward” as the issues covered, but the handwritten addendum notes that the ad “mentions Mitch McConnell” and the “government shutdown and how it affects food safety, TSA, Iowa farmers.”

Other ad records are terser. NAB records for ads attacking Perdue list only “David Perdue US Senate” and the group’s name as issues but a page with an additional series of questions submitted by the station does mention the deposit bonus” alt=”” width=”686″ height=”478″ srcset=” deposit bonus 960w, deposit bonus×209.png 300w, deposit bonus×535.png 768w” sizes=”(max-width: 686px) 100vw, 686px”>On some records, the issue of national importance is simply typed in as “Majority Forward,” giving little insight into the nature of the ads themselves. Ad records from a station in North Carolina feature a handwritten note with “Majority Forward” crossed out and replaced with “Anti-Thom Tillis” and the Nov. 3, 2020 election date written in. The ad record makes no mention of the government shutdown or any other issue of national importance other than Tillis’ 2020 Senate deposit bonus” alt=”” width=”704″ height=”429″ srcset=” deposit bonus 952w, deposit bonus×183.png 300w, deposit bonus×468.png 768w” sizes=”(max-width: 704px) 100vw, 704px”>

A Denver television station fact-checked the anti-Gardner ad and labeled part of it misleading, as Gardner was actually the first Senate Republican to publicly side with Democratic proposals to reopen the government. Gardner called on Congress to reopen the government without a border deal on Jan. 3, long before the ads reached the airwaves. Several of the ads were set to run through the end of January, after the government had already been opened.

Majority Forward is closely linked with Senate Majority PAC (SMP) and former Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid. Both groups were relatively unsuccessful in 2018 — 42 percent of Majority Forward’s spending and 40 percent of SMP’s went to aid a winning candidate — but that might change in 2020 when a handful of Senate Republicans will have to play defense.

Although recent FEC guidance requires outside spending groups to disclose spending more than $250 on independent expenditures to disclose donors giving over $200 for “political purposes” in the past year, it is unlikely Majority Forward’s donors will be revealed anytime soon since its FEC disclosures include a notation claiming it “does not accept contributions earmarked for a specific political purpose” — effectively giving the group a green light to funnel millions more into 2020 elections without ever disclosing the financiers behind it.

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