Dems raise dark money alarm

Greg Nash

Democrats are sounding the alarm about spending by outside conservative groups, even as skeptics question whether their anxiety is genuine or simply a tactic to turbo-charge their own fundraising efforts. 

On Tuesday, Senate Democrats introduced legislation to force outside advocacy groups to publicly disclose their donors, even though the proposal has little chance of passing. Similar efforts went nowhere in 2010 and 2012.

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“Since the Supreme Court’s disastrous Citizens United decision, a torrent of dark money has swept through our political system giving corporations and billionaires the ability to buy and sell elections,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), the lead sponsor of the Disclose Act.

Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), his party’s chief political guru in the Senate, warned that outside conservative groups will likely outspend their liberal counterparts by a greater margin than in 2010, when Republicans picked up six Senate seats and captured the House.

“Clearly the outside groups are spending more than the individual campaigns and the party committees. ... It’s not disclosed and it’s usually done by a handful of individuals,” he said

“I think it’s very unhealthy for our democracy.”

Schumer added that he believed the problem is “getting worse every year.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) warned in rare testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this month that “the flood of dark money” into campaigns “poses the greatest threat to our democracy that I have witnessed during my time in public service.”

Senate Democrats are pushing two initiatives. The Disclose Act of 2014 would require any advocacy group that spends $10,000 or more on election ads to disclose its donors to the Federal Election Commission within 24 hours.

They have also coalesced behind a constitutional amendment that would empower Congress to regulate campaign fundraising activity without interference from the Supreme Court.

Privately, however, Democrats are less worried than they appear at press conferences and hearings, in large part because liberal groups have stepped up their game in the past four years.

Some Democratic strategists also say that television advertising — the main weapon that can be purchased with bigger fundraising hauls — is losing its ability to affect the outcome of races. 

Meanwhile, even some on the left admit that one of the prime purposes of the complaints about “dark money” is to prompt liberal donors to open their checkbooks.

“The outrage is good for fundraising,” a Senate Democratic aide acknowledged Tuesday.

Indeed, Democrats have made the GOP mega donors Charles and David Koch the centerpiece of their 2014 fundraising efforts.

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) Chairman Michael Bennet (Colo.) warned in a recent fundraising letter that outside special interest groups have already committed more than $10 million against vulnerable Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska).

“The Koch brothers’ network has also invested heavily in a candidate they think can unseat Mark Begich,” he wrote before asking recipients to kick in at least $5 for a grassroots campaign.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) urged fellow Democrats to contribute between $5 and $250 to respond to what she called the “unprecedented blow” from the Koch brothers, whose Americans for Prosperity group has pledged to spend $125 million against Democratic candidates this cycle.

“That’s simply staggering,” she wrote.

Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.), who chaired the DSCC in 2010, said he expects the playing field to be more level this cycle.

Four years ago “we were blown away,” he said.

Now, he says, conservative groups are “still undoubtedly ahead [but] at least the progressive community has been, from what I gather, more engaged.”

In 2010, the DSCC spent about $70 million on campaigns after paying its own expenses and estimates that conservative outside groups spent about $68 million against Democratic candidates.

The liberal confidence is also bolstered because both public and internal party polls show vulnerable Democratic candidates including Begich and Sens. Mark Pryor (Ark.) and Kay Hagan (N.C.) holding their own against Republican opponents, despite a barrage of attack ads funded by outside groups.

This election cycle Senate Majority PAC, a super-PAC allied with the Senate Democrats, has already spent $18 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks political spending.

Patriot Majority, another pro-Democratic PAC, has spent $4.7 million, according to the group.

Robert Maguire, who researches outside group spending for the CRP, said the playing field is more even than it was in 2010.

“There was a hesitancy on the side of liberal groups to raise big checks but I think they’ve realized they have to fight fire with fire,” he said.

There are some categories in which conservative groups have a significant edge, however.

Conservative non-party committees have spent $68.2 million and liberal non-party committees have spent $45.7 million in the 2014 cycle, according to the CRP.

Conservative outside groups that do not disclose their donors have spent $21.4 million this cycle, while their liberal counterparts have spent $7.4 million.