Only a fraction of ‘dark money’ spending on Kavanaugh disclosed
A couple weeks have now passed since Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s first day on the Supreme Court. After a tumultuous confirmation process, Kavanaugh was voted onto the Court by the Senate on Oct. 6, and he started his lifetime term on Oct. 9.
During the weeks leading up to Oct. 6, a number of Facebook ads started appearing in users’ timelines that either supported or opposed Kavanaugh’s nomination.
Two ‘dark money’ advocacy groups, Demand Justice and Judicial Crisis Network, pledged to spend millions on ads related to the Kavanaugh confirmation. But a new report on Facebook ad spending, released by the platform Oct. 23, shows that Facebook ads only account for a small portion of their pledged spending.
Judicial Crisis Network (JCN), a conservative 501(c)(4) nonprofit that does not disclose its donors, spent $483,246 in total on Facebook ads from May to October. That sum purchased 124 ads, though those ads did have considerable reach — amassing potentially millions of impressions.
In July, the group said it would spend over double that figure — $1 million — supporting the nominee, according to The New York Times. The group had also pledged to spend a total of $10 million on ads, including TV.
JCN has been a leading ‘dark money’ spender in each Supreme Court confirmation battle since its launch in 2005, allowing deep-pocketed donors to funnel millions of dollars into messaging about judicial nominees without ever disclosing their identities.
JCN spent just $1,900 on Google platforms but garnered more than 120,000 and up to 1.2 million impressions, according to data from the Google Transparency Report.
The biggest portion of JCN’s reported spending went to TV advertising. JCN spent approximately $3.9 million on TV ads, according to Kantar Media/CMAG estimates last updated on Oct. 8 – still millions short of the amount JCN had pledged to spend.
Comparatively, liberal ‘dark money’ group Demand Justice spent $322,178 on Facebook ads. The group said in July it would spend $5 million on ads opposing Kavanaugh, according to Politico.
Like Judicial Crisis Network, Demand Justice’s spending would also be considered ‘dark money’ since it does not disclose donors. Demand Justice does not, however, follow the more traditional model of incorporating as a tax-exempt 501(c) nonprofit, which would require it to file annual 990 tax returns and potentially other incorporation documents.
Instead, Demand Justice operates as an unincorporated entity organized by a tax-exempt fiscal sponsor. That sponsor is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit named Sixteen Thirty Fund, which provides a legal home and steers money from secret donors to more than 40 different unincorporated entities that are consequently not required to file separate tax returns or other incorporation documents.
This further obscures the spending of entities like Demand Justice that fall under the umbrella of a fiscal sponsor, allowing them to essentially operate with no a paper trail.
Demand Justice spent around $1.1 million on TV ads, according to Kantar CMAG estimates, and has not reported spending on Google ads. Like JCN, Demand Justice’s reported spending falls short of the total amount pledged.
That’s not to say the amounts were not spent, however, since ‘dark money’ groups like these are able to operate with minimal disclosure even while funneling millions of dollars into judicial confirmation processes.
It remains a mystery how much these groups spent on Twitter advertising since the Twitter Ads Transparency Center only provides a tool to search for limited information about ads that are only archived for a week.
Other groups, including NARAL Pro-Choice America, Planned Parenthood Action Fund, America First Policies, 45Committee and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) also purchased Facebook ads for the Kavanaugh nomination.
The totals for these groups are from all Facebook ads purchased between May and October. While all have been running ads for the upcoming midterm elections and other issues central to their missions, a sizable amount have focused on Kavanaugh.
NARAL, a pro-choice advocacy group, spent $463,914 on 5,370 Facebook ads and has continued to feature Kavanaugh in ads in the weeks leading up to midterm elections. The group is also asking for signatures on a petition that seems to serve little purpose other than list building.
Planned Parenthood’s political and advocacy arm, Planned Parenthood Action Fund, spent $979,045 on 2,668 Facebook ads. Planned Parenthood has continued to run active Facebook ads through the end of October mentioning Kavanaugh, using his confirmation as part of political advertising encouraging viewers to vote in the upcoming 2018 midterm elections.
America First Policies, a nonprofit organization that has become the main ‘dark money’ group supporting President Donald Trump’s agenda, also pitched in on the Kavanaugh battle. The group spent $250,811 on 1,598 ads.
45Committee, another politically active 501(c)(4) nonprofit supporting Trump that does not disclose its donors, spent $40,969 on 12 ads, which were all for Kavanaugh.
The ACLU spent $618,560 on 5,883 ads during this period.
Party groups spending with the ostensible purpose of influencing 2018 midterm elections have also continued spending on messaging about Kavanaugh. The National Republican Congressional Committee has been spending over $1.4 million on ads mostly focused on promoting Republicans in 2018 midterm elections.
Even Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), a senator who has been the target of much backlash over her vote against confirming Justice Kavanaugh, has spent substantially on Kavanaugh-themed ads in the weeks since the Senate’s vote. Since the first ad launched on Oct. 11, Heitkamp’s campaign has spent $765,207 on ads — all of them providing justification for her vote.
A super PAC called Be a Hero PAC also emerged as a big spender on Kavanaugh ads with nearly half a million — $486,161 — in spending on ads overall. The super PAC has more than 50 active Facebook ad buys focused on Kavanaugh targeting Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) as of Oct. 24, continuing the trend of targeting candidates in swing states with Kavanaugh messaging in the lead-up to the 2018 midterm elections.
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