Outside groups switch election tactics to keep their donors secret

Outside groups are going to extra lengths to keep their donors secret, worrying that public disclosure could open up their supporters to harassment.

Bob Biersack, senior fellow at the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks outside group spending in federal elections, says that groups will change their election strategy to keep donor names protected.

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“There’s been very little electioneering communication since that Van Hollen decision came out,” Biersack said in reference to a recent court decision that may require groups funding issue ads to disclose their donors.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has been a dominant force in Senate battleground states, has signaled it will switch from issue ads to independent expenditures to keep its donors secret.

The Chamber has poured millions of dollars into issue ads but in the wake of the court ruling has put money into independent expenditures, which allows it to better protect donors’ identities.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in May denied a motion to stay a lower court ruling requiring outside groups engaging in electioneering communication to disclose their donors, handing proponents of campaign finance reform a major victory. 

Issue ads, or electioneering communications, as they are also called, usually praise or condemn a candidate but stop short of asking viewers to vote for or against the candidate.

The Chamber spent $95,000 on an independent expenditure at the end of June to support Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) in the Utah GOP primary, according to a database compiled by the Federal Election Commission. According to the FEC database, it was the first large independent expenditure the Chamber has made this year.

Bruce Josten, the Chamber’s executive vice president for government affairs, signaled at a recent breakfast that his group planned to change tactics in the wake of the ruling requiring the FEC to write stronger regulations for issue ads.

Josten noted that while the court ruling addressed “electioneering communications”, it said nothing about “independent expenditures”.

“We’re not going to pull back from anything we’re doing. It’s full steam ahead. The only thing that may switch is you’re forced to do express advocacy using the magic words ‘vote for,’ ‘vote against’ as opposed to highlighting a given member’s legislative record,” Josten said at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor.

Independent expenditures, which must be reported to the FEC, include advertisements that explicitly ask voters to vote for or against a particular candidate. Such expenditures do not require groups to disclose their donors, said Biersack, who worked three decades at the FEC.

“This demonstrates to what degree groups want to remain behind a cloak of anonymity. They feel what they’re doing can’t stand up to public scrutiny or the blowback will be too great,” said Meredith McGehee, policy director of the Campaign Legal Center, a group that promotes greater disclosure of campaign fundraising.

Democrats who track issue ads in Senate races say the Chamber has been a major player this year.

For example, as of mid-June, the Chamber of Commerce had spent $993,000 to support Republican candidate George Allen’s bid to win Virginia’s Senate seat, according to a Democratic source tracking media in the state.

At the end of April, the Chamber had spent $2.7 million in Ohio to defeat Sen. Sherrod Brown (D), $988,000 in Missouri against Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) and $581,000 in Montana against Sen. Jon Tester (D), according to the source.

Chamber officials say their donors could become the targets of harassment if their names became public.

“It’s all about intimidation,” Chamber president Tom Donohue told reporters. “They want to be able to intimidate people not to put their money into the electoral process.

“We can, under these decisions, run an aggressive program, and we will,” he added.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) spoke out on the need to protect donors to third-party political groups in a recent speech at the American Enterprise Institute.

“Let’s be very clear: no individual or group in this country should have to face harassment or intimidation, or incur crippling expenses, defending themselves against their own government, simply because that government doesn’t like the message they’re advocating,” he said.

McConnell noted that conservative bloggers have been the victims of what has become known as “SWAT-ing.”

“Somebody who knows how to hack into phones calls 911, ostensibly from your phone, and tells the police they just killed somebody. Within minutes, the local SWAT team shows up at your house, guns drawn, helicopters swirling overhead,” he said.

McConnell and leaders of outside advocacy groups fear their donors could become the targets of such harassment.

But McGehee says these concerns are overblown.

She said the public criticism that political donors might face is not on the same level as civil rights groups such as the NAACP during the 1950s.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1958 that the state of Alabama could not compel the NAACP to reveal the names and addresses of its members.

“The harassment has to be real, substantial threats,” she said. “The NAACP was worried about Molotov cocktails being thrown through windows.”

She said the high court has otherwise consistently rejected arguments that donors’ names should be kept secret.