‘Dark money’ groups make impact with spending on all levels of races in midterm elections
WASHINGTON — In June, Scott Renfroe, a Colorado state senator running in a crowded GOP congressional primary, was hit with a slashing attack ad that accused him of supporting “taxpayer-funded bailouts” for a failed local bank.
“Not conservative,” declared the ad run by a nonprofit called Citizens for a Sound Government. The spot hit two weeks before the primary, which Renfroe lost by 20 points.
The innocuous-sounding group was among a wave of organizations funded by secret donors that set a new high-water mark in the 2014 midterms, spending more than $170 million on congressional races, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
And as the Renfroe case suggests, it wasn’t just high-profile, expensive Senate contests: Secret-money groups had a major presence in more than two dozen lesser-known House races as well, according to a Washington Post analysis of campaign finance data compiled by the center.
In 13 House races, non-disclosing groups spent at least $1 million on political ads and voter outreach. In 17 other House campaigns, they made up more than half of the spending by independent groups.
The money spent by so-called “dark money” groups heavily favored Republicans, but a large chunk was spent by liberal groups such as Patriot Majority and VoteVets.org.
The reach of groups financed by unknown donors was much bigger, as the analysis includes only expenditures reported to the Federal Election Commission. Several hundred million dollars was estimated to have been spent by tax-exempt groups on so-called “issue ads,” data gathering and voter outreach that was not disclosed publicly.
Conservatives who defend keeping donors’ names private said the right of anonymous speech is essential, noting that Senate Majority Harry Reid, D-Nev., spent much of this year publicly assailing billionaires Charles and David Koch for their political activities.
“Increasingly, politicians in Washington want to shut down debate and silence those that disagree with them,” said James Davis, a spokesman for Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, a tax-exempt group backed by the Koches and other big donors on the right.