Big money—increasingly laundered through independent groups that do not disclose their donors—is corrupting our politics. In this election season alone, the Wesleyan Media Project reports, nearly 60 percent of the ads aired in Democratic House primaries were purchased by groups that offered only partial disclosure of their donors—or none at all. Progressive challengers in contested primaries were often the leading targets of these dark money groups.
Democrats have long condemned the Big Money corruption of our politics—but reforms passed by the House of Representatives have repeatedly been torpedoed by Republican filibusters in the Senate. This month, however, Democrats could—if they choose—crack down on dark money poisoning their own primaries. And small-d democrats across the country should join in calling for them to act. Since the courts treat the Democratic National Committee and the party essentially as a club with free association rights, the party can make and enforce its own rules for how its candidates are selected—without the need for Republican cooperation. A resolution introduced by Judith Whitmer, chair of the Nevada Democratic Party—along with 33 of her fellow DNC members—calls on the party to “ban the use of ‘dark money’ funding during any and all Democratic primary elections.” DNC Resolution 19 also calls for mechanisms to investigate the use of dark money, explore possible disciplinary action, and empower states to set rules in their primaries to ensure transparency.
As Democrats from Joe Biden on down have argued, campaign finance reform is long overdue. This primary season has dramatized just how corrupt and corrosive the current system is.
Perhaps the most egregious example has been provided by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee—AIPAC—and its various independent expenditure fronts. Republican megadonors Bernie Marcus and Paul Singer gave one of AIPAC’s fronts, the United Democracy Project, $1 million apiece prior to the Democratic primaries. UDP then boasted about the millions it spent to target progressive Democratic candidates—primarily progressive women of color.
Throwing over $2.7 million of largely Republican donor money into negative ads against Summer Lee, a progressive champion in Pennsylvania, the UDP had the chutzpah to accuse her of not being “a real Democrat.” Lee, the overwhelming favorite before the UDP waded in, barely survived the onslaught. But other progressives that AIPAC targeted—including Jennifer Cisneros in Texas, Nina Turner in Ohio, Donna Edwards in Maryland—went down to defeat in the face of literally millions in negative ads by the UDP alone.
Dark money also contributed to the defeat of Andy Levin, one of the great progressive champions of labor and the environmental movement in the Congress, in his primary against Haley Stevens, the establishment favorite. Levin is pro-choice, but Emily’s List spent an astonishing $3 million against him—money that was likely seeded by a few targeted big grants by anonymous donors. Levin, who is Jewish and a committed Zionist, was apparently not ardent enough for AIPAC, which spent $4 million in negative ads through affiliated groups to attack him. (J Street, the progressive pro-Israel group, backed Levin, but without Republican and right-wing support could ante up only $700,000 in independent expenditures).
Cryptocurrency billionaires are becoming another source of big money as part of a campaign to insulate their Ponzi schemes from regulation. The crypto billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried virtually invented the primary candidacy of Carrick Flynn, in the new Sixth Congressional District of Oregon, spending $11 million through his super PAC Protect our Future to boost a previous unknown against State Representative Andrea Salinas, who had the backing of Planned Parenthood, the Working Families Party and local labor unions. Bankman-Fried’s contribution of another $6 million to the House Majority PAC no doubt “encouraged” the group to endorse Flynn—who became the beneficiary of $1 million in PAC funding—over the objections of local Democratic committees. Flynn also received $1 million from the so-called Mainstream Democratic PAC, supported largely by Linked In founder Reid Hoffman. Salinas won decisively, but only a remarkable mobilization of local activists enabled the progressive candidate in Oregon’s Fifth Congressional District, Jamie McLeod-Skinner to overcome the dark money onslaught aimed at protecting the incumbent blue dog Democrat, Kurt Schrader.
Big money will continue to flood into primaries because deep pocket donors aren’t stupid. Thanks to partisan gerrymandering, only about 14 percent of congressional districts are ever contested. In the rest, the primary determines the winner—at far less cost than a general election campaign. Unless checked, corporate and financial interests will continue to view funding primaries as a relatively inexpensive means to protect their interests. As Nevada chair Judith Whitmer stated in an interview, the level of dark money intervention in primary elections has become “very alarming.” The “avalanche” of dark money is getting to the point where “people lose their right to choose their own candidates,” Whitmer said.
This corporate thumb on the scale is particularly pernicious at a time when Democrats are engaged in a pitched battle over their direction and agenda. Will they become the party that helps midwife the progressive era that is long overdue? Will they champion the interests of working and poor people? Or will they remain an economically neoliberal party of Wall Street, Silicon Valley and Hollywood, anchored in the affluent suburbs, abandoning working people to be misled by demagogues like Trump and his successors?
Senator Bernie Sanders has formally called on the DNC to act, writing that “Dark money is dark money, whether it is funded by Republican billionaires or Democratic billionaires.”
“The continuation of super PAC money in Democratic primaries,” warns Sanders, “will demoralize the Democratic base and alienate potential Democratic voters from the political process.”
The decision this week by the DNC thus has profound implications. Will Democratic rules reflect the party’s stated values? As DNC member Larry Cohen, the chair of Our Revolution, noted, “every leader of the Democratic Party has condemned dark money and Citizens United. Now is time to do something about it.”
Whitmer’s resolution will go before the Resolutions Committee on September 7 or 8. The Committee will decide then whether to report out the resolution—either separately or in a package to the full DNC which meets on the 9th. Backstage maneuvers have already begun. Since simply torpedoing the resolution wouldn’t look good, suddenly a competing resolution has been introduced (and listed as Resolution 18 just before the genuine reform). As Whitmer noted, it merely repeats the party’s toothless call to repeal Citizen’s United and changes nothing.
The DNC is controlled from the top. Fewer than half of its members are elected. The DNC head—in this case, Jamie Harrison–generally comes into each meeting armed with a 100 or so proxies from members who won’t attend, ensuring that he controls all outcomes. His position on issues is defined by what the party leaders—in this case the White House—want to happen. (One of the resolutions that the DNC will likely consider at this meeting would make any resolution involving party rules passed by the national convention inoperative unless adopted by a majority of the DNC. The DNC chair could thus block reforms passed by the most democratic body of the party—the delegates meeting every four years at the convention—simply by ignoring them.)
Most DNC meetings pass without much notice. And Harrison may well seek to bury Resolution 19 without a discussion or a recorded vote. Democrats across the country—activists, donors, local party officials, volunteers—should make it clear to Harrison, and to the White House, that this issue can’t be buried quietly. It is time to curb the role of dark money in Democratic primaries before the party itself is too corrupted to redeem or repair.
Write or call Jamie Harrison, chair of the DNC, and demand full consideration—and a recorded vote—on Resolution 19 to ban dark money in Democratic primaries.
Call the DNC’s main number (202.863.8000) and demand they support Resolution 19.
Write or call the chair of your state Democratic Party to support Resolution 19 and the call for an open debate.