The Dark Money Election

Andrew Sullivan —  Aug 15 2012 @ 12:17pm

by Chas Danner

Just two conservative 501(c)(4)'s, Americans For Prosperity and Crossroads GPS, are spending more to influence this election than all the Super PACs combined:

The two nonprofits [AFP and C-GPS] had outspent each of the other types of outside spending groups in this election cycle, including political parties, unions, trade associations and political action committees, a ProPublica analysis of data provided by Kantar Media's Campaign Media Analysis Group, or CMAG, found. Super PACs, which do have to report their donors, spent an estimated $55.7 million on TV ads mentioning a presidential candidate, CMAG data shows. Parties spent $22.5 million. Crossroads GPS, or Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, is the brainchild of GOP strategist Karl Rove, and spent an estimated $41.7 million. Americans for Prosperity, credited with helping launch the Tea Party movement, is backed in part by billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch, and spent an estimated $18.2 million.

As a reminder, the difference between a Super PAC and a 501(c)(4) is that the 501(c)(4) doesn't have to disclose its donors (thus: "dark money"), and in theory (but never actually in practice) the groups can only support a "social welfare" issue, not a candidate (though the groups can donate to Super PACs that do explicitly support a candidate). And just to show how one-sided the spending is so far, conservative 501(c)(4)'s are outspending their liberal counterparts more than 35 to 1. And the spending is not just on the presidential race; dark money hijinks infect the smaller races too. Here's just one example from OpenSecrets' Dan Glaun:

Las Vegas-based [Super PAC] It's Now or Never, has spent more than $155,000 supporting or opposing candidates so far this year, according to the Federal Election Commission. Of that total, $140,000 went to influence Utah's state-level attorney general race; the other $15,000 was split between supporting Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) in his primary, which he won, and Nevada State Sen. Barbara Cegavske in her unsuccessful bid to be the GOP nominee for a House seat. The group has raised $171,900. And $160,900 of it has come from the same place: the It's Now Or Never 501(c)(4) nonprofit group, a tax-exempt social welfare organization registered to the same address as its sister super PAC. The groups share leadership, a name and a location, but the key difference is that the nonprofit does not have to disclose its donors, meaning that the original source of the super PAC's funds may never be known.

Plus now a new 501(c)(4) is going to try to "swiftboat" Obama over the Bin Laden op, though of course they maintain that is not their aim:

The OPSEC group says it is not political and aims to save American lives. Its first public salvo is a 22-minute film that includes criticism of Obama and his administration. The film, to be released on Wednesday, was seen in advance by Reuters. "Mr. President, you did not kill Osama bin Laden, America did. The work that the American military has done killed Osama bin Laden. You did not," Ben Smith, identified as a Navy SEAL, says in the film. "As a citizen, it is my civic duty to tell the president to stop leaking information to the enemy," Smith continues. "It will get Americans killed."

OPSEC is also working on TV ads containing similar claims that they intend to air in at least six battleground states. It is of course absolutely ridiculous to call a group "not political" when it's funded by unknown donors and is producing material specifically aimed at President Obama to air in battleground states in the middle of an election year. Perhaps the FEC will come after these groups, like they eventually did the similar one that "swiftboated" John Kerry over his Vietnam service, but as was the case in that election, the punishment came long after the intended effect.