Obama-tied operatives and Biden supporters launch $60 million ‘dark money’ group

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A new “dark money” group is tied to former Barack Obama-linked operatives and a supporter of Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential run. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

A new “dark money” group is labeling itself the strategy center for Democrats in 2020.

The recently-launched Future Majority will spend up to $60 million to target voters in swing states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio in the 2020 election, helping Democrats craft messaging that they are fighting for working people while countering conservative talking points, according to Politico.

The 501(c)(4) nonprofit, run by Democratic strategist Mark Riddle, is not required to disclose its donors. The group will reportedly “spend money through PACs,” potentially feeding a growing trend of dark money-funded super PACs spending to influence elections.

Earlier this year, Democratic fundraiser Matthew Tompkins formed a super PAC called America’s Future Majority Fund PAC. He is also listed as the custodian of records for an identically-named nonprofit run by Riddle and is listed as governor on incorporation records for Future Majority. The two long worked together at New Leaders Council (NLC), a nonprofit that helps recruit young progressive leaders.

The revolving door between the new nonprofit and NLC doesn’t end there. Incorporation records show Future Majority’s incorporator is Cathedral Strategies LLC, a limited-liability company with a paper trail linked to Brett Avery Seifried, who was general counsel of NLC.

With Tompkins, links between Future Majority and presidential contender Joe Biden begin to emerge. The Hill reported that Tompkins recently launched a pro-Biden super PAC, titled For the People PAC, with the aim of raising tens of millions of dollars to support Biden’s campaign.

The group hasn’t emerged in FEC filings yet, but the Washington Free Beacon reported that Tompkins established a committee called Biden PAC on April 26. The same day it was established, the PAC renamed itself to G Street and removed Tompkins as its treasurer.

Several of the operatives tied to Future Majority have long histories in former President Barack Obama’s political circles.

Dustin Robinson is listed as the designated agent for Future Majority in D.C. incorporation records and the agent for America’s Future Majority Fund in FEC records. He also served as NLC’s communication director and worked as an organizer for Organizing for Action (OFA), a 501(c)(4) nonprofit created by former Obama campaign aides to pick up where the campaign left off.

Future Majority is also enlisting Philip Munger, who served as an OFA director, and Julianna Smoot, a deputy campaign manager on Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection effort who went on to serve as the director of Obama’s foundation and treasurer of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund.

Incorporation records reveal another group named Future Majority existed — at least on paper — from 2008 until 2011. Potentially an earlier iteration of the newly launched nonprofit, the group’s listed agent was Ivan Frishberg, OFA’s climate-change manager.

OFA shifted its direction in early 2019 to become All On The Line, a nonprofit dedicated to ending gerrymandering primarily in Republican-gerrymandered states.

Although Obama isn’t poised to endorse a particular candidate in the crowded Democratic primary leading up to the 2020 presidential election, former Obama aides appear to be laying the groundwork to support their candidate of choice — whoever that may be.

Biden’s campaign has said it doesn’t welcome support from super PACs, following a similar stance to most 2020 Democrats. Whether these public disavowals make an impact remains to be seen, as super PACs are not allowed to coordinate with candidates and may independently spend to support or oppose any candidate — with or without their permission.

Tompkins did not respond to a request for comment on whether the pro-Biden super PAC will work with Future Majority. Future Majority did not respond to a request for comment on whether it will back a candidate in the primary.

Tompkins isn’t the only person linked to Future Majority to throw support behind Biden. Actress Alyssa Milano, who is reportedly working to promote the group on social media, strongly defended Biden in a recent interview with MSNBC, putting an emphasis on nominating a candidate who has the best chance of beating “this horrible, horrible president.” Biden has pitched himself as having the best chance of beating President Donald Trump — and the polls, for the time being, back up his argument.

Riddle told Politico he is worried about 2020 Democrats being labeled as socialists — an increasingly common Republican talking point entering 2020. On its about us page, Future Majority, urges Democrats to use the terminology “Smart Capitalism” when describing economic plans. The group also subtly pushes back on Medicare-for-All, calling for Democrats to improve healthcare by “strengthening the Affordable Care Act and protecting Medicare and Social Security.”

Although Future Majority is not required to disclose its donors, the group told Politico it is backed by Democratic megadonors Philip Munger, Dan Tierney and Keith Mestrich. Munger has already given to 2020 hopefuls — the maximum $5,600 to Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and $5,600 to Rep. Eric Swalwell’s (D-Calif.) congressional committee. Tierney has given to four 2020 Democrats thus far — $2,800 to former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) and U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and $5,600 to Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg.

Joining the ranks of politically-active “social welfare” organizations

Future Majority is soliciting donations through ActBlue Civics, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization that acts as a fundraising conduit for other overtly political nonprofits such as Demand Justice and Priorities USA. On its donate page, the nonprofit uses language such as “Let’s Win! Donate now to support Future Majority!” to describe its activities.

While groups operating as purported social welfare organizations under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code are allowed to engage in some political activities, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) prohibits them from having politics as their primary purpose. But the IRS has not established any “bright line” rules governing what constitutes too much politicking.

“The IRS has allowed the determination of political activity to operate within a grey area,” said Brendan Fischer, director of federal reform at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center. “A group like Future Majority can likely feel comfortable pushing the legal envelope expecting the IRS will let them get away with it.”

Lack of clarity in IRS or FEC rules allows politically-active nonprofits to make a major impact in federal elections — totaling $1 billion in all-time FEC-reported dark money as of 2018. Dark money was dominated by conservative groups for several consecutive cycles prior to 2018, when liberal groups shelled out more on FEC-reported outside spending than their conservative counterparts.

The surprising shift was sparked by the emergence of Majority Forward, a Senate Democrat leadership-linked 501(c)(4) nonprofit that spent a cycle-high $40 million. It also contributed directly to super PACs, including a $1.1 million contribution to the closely-aligned Senate Majority PAC.

If Future Majority does fund closely-tied super PACs, it would continue a growing trend in the campaign finance landscape. In 2018, conservative dark money group American Action Network transferred more than $26 million to the Congressional Leadership Fund (CLF) super PAC, with which it shares the same staff and offices. CLF swiftly became the top-spending super PAC in 2018, shelling out nearly $136 million to support House Republicans.

While super PACs bankrolled primarily by dark money groups may appear to be a brazen attempt to skirt donor disclosure rules, the increasingly common tactic is not necessarily illegal unless the dark money group is acting as a “straw donor” or if the arrangement is in violation of other FEC regulations.

But it appears Future Majority will do much more than spend money on ads — primarily offering strategic advice and branding efforts to other Democratic groups. A nonprofit acting as a self-proclaimed “strategy center” for other groups represents a new kind of dark money group.

Outside groups are prohibited from coordinating with candidates and parties on election-related expenditures, but the FEC hasn’t been keen on enforcing its own rules.

Pro-Clinton super PAC Correct the Record conducted research for the Hillary Clinton campaign,  which would typically be considered an in-kind contribution. But the group argued it could coordinate with the campaign because it was posting material online under the FEC’s “Internet exemption” that allows individuals to post political activity.

Campaign Legal Center filed a complaint with the FEC arguing the group was making illegal in-kind contributions to the Clinton campaign. The commission has yet to take action on the complaint.

Future Majority told Politico that it advised the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) on how to message voters in 2018. As part of its goal of being a “strategy center” for Democratic groups, the nonprofit has publicly posted suggestions on how to present certain policies to voters.

“It raises the question for me if Future Majority is using a Correct the Record-style argument that they can coordinate with candidates or parties as long as the end product is then posted online,” Fischer said.

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