Why Democrats Are Suddenly Putting A Focus On Dark Money

With seven weeks until Election Day, Democratic leaders are seeking to put Republicans on the defensive over the corrosive influence of money in politics.

WASHINGTON — Democrats this week plan to draw a contrast with Republicans on the issue of disclosing so-called “dark money” in elections, scheduling a Thursday vote in the Senate on legislation known as the Disclose Act.

This will be the first time in 10 years that the Senate will vote on the campaign finance proposal originally introduced in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), would require all groups spending money in elections or in support or opposition of a judicial nominee to disclose donations of $10,000 or more.

Republicans previously filibustered the bill three times — most recently in 2012. They’re expected to do so again this time.

So why is a campaign finance disclosure bill getting precious floor time before the Nov. 8 election while other legislative proposals — antitrust, Electoral Count Act reform and same-sex marriage protections — wait their turn? The answer is rather simple: It’s good politics.

“It turns out that the press has missed a message,” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, told HuffPost. “It’s one of these questions when polled, it’s overwhelming. People are sick of these campaigns and how much money is being spent. And now, Leonard Leo has crossed the campaign Rubicon with a billion-dollar effort, it’s just completely out of hand. And so it’s a bigger issue than you think. It’s a red hot issue in the polls.”

“It shows that this is a priority for the Democrats,” Adam Bozzi, spokesperson for End Citizens United, a PAC affiliated with the Democratic Party that advocates for campaign finance reforms, said in an email. “It’s both good policy and good politics.”

President Joe Biden even gave a prepared speech in support of the Disclose Act on Tuesday, another sign that Democrats see the issue as good politics ahead of the midterms.

“Dark money has become so common in our elections and I believe sunlight is the best disinfectant,” Biden said at the White House, referencing a famous line by Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis in support of transparency.

Recent polls show that the corrosive influence of money in politics remains a major concern for Americans. Seventy-two percent of Americans said that democracy is threatened in a late August CBS/YouGov poll. The “influence of money in politics” topped the list of such concerns, with 86% of those who felt that democracy is under threat citing it.

Threats to democracy also appeared as the top issue of concern in an NBC News poll released on Sept. 18, although when provided an open-ended question to explain what threats meant to them Democratic respondents mostly gave answers related to Donald Trump’s ongoing efforts to delegitimize elections.

Still, it is clear that Democrats see the corrupting influence of money in politics as an issue that excites their base and has strong cross-partisan appeal. It’s a big part of the reason they combined campaign finance reform, including the Disclose Act, with voting rights into their top messaging bill, the For The People Act, in both 2019 and 2021. And they and their affiliated outside groups are making it an issue in the midterm elections.

Senate Majority PAC, the leader Democratic Senate super PAC, partnered with End Citizens United for a $1.9 million ad buy on Sept. 16 hitting Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) tying the contributions he’s received from the oil and gas industry to the rising cost of gas. In House races, Democrats’ lead super PAC House Majority PAC has already put out ads knocking Republicans on issues related to campaign money in races in Maine and Michigan.

There will be consequences to this vote and [End Citizens United] will work to make sure they are felt,” Bozzi said.

Republicans, however, remain both opposed to the disclosure bill and mystified by why Democrats are giving it a vote.

I think they were looking for kind of stink bomb votes going into an election that they think will put Republicans on defense, but I don’t think this really qualifies as that,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the No. 3 Republican in the Senate, told HuffPost. “It’s really kind of an obscure issue.”

Current campaign finance disclosure rules require candidate and party committees, PACs and super PACs and 527 nonprofit groups to disclose their donors, but do not cover donations to nonprofits organized under section 501(c)(4) or 501(c)(6) of the tax code when they spend money to expressly advocate for the election or defeat of a federal election candidate.

This lack of disclosure emerged as an issue after the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United freed corporations, unions and other groups, including certain nonprofit groups, to receive and spend unlimited sums on electoral efforts. Following the decision, undisclosed election spending by nonprofits, known as “dark money,” surged north of $100 million in each of the last five elections.

Democrats introduced the Disclose Act in 2010 in an immediate response to the court’s decision, but it failed to clear GOP filibusters twice by votes of 57-41and 59-39. The last time it came up for a vote in 2012, it again failed to reach the 60 votes necessary to clear a filibuster by a vote of 53-45. Most recently, Republicans blocked a unanimous consent request to pass the bill in 2021.

One big change in the Disclose Act since it was last voted on in 2012 is the extension of disclosure requirements to groups spending on judicial nominations. This was added to the bill by Whitehouse in response to the multimillion-dollar campaigns run by conservative groups connected to Federalist Society co-founder Leonard Leo that aided the GOP blockade of 2016 nominee Merrick Garland and promoted the nominations of Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.

Leo, the architect of the GOP’s takeover of the Supreme Court, has since made news after ProPublica and Lever News reported that a group he runs received a $1.6 billion donation from an obscure conservative donor — a donation that would otherwise be unknown absent ProPublica’s report.

While dark money spending on elections was initially dominated by Republican-allied groups thanks to the big spending of billionaire fossil fuel titans Charles and David Koch and the late casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, Democratic-allied groups have since taken the lead in the past two election cycles.

Despite this newfound advantage, there are no Republican lawmakers who support legislation to mandate disclosure for this type of campaign spending, which Biden made a point of noting.

“I acknowledge that it’s an issue for both parties,” Biden said, “but here is the key difference: Democrats in the Congress support more openness and accountability. Republicans in Congress, so far, don’t. I hope they’ll come around.”

This article has been updated to reflect that the Senate vote on the Disclose Act will occur on Thursday.

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