Campaign-finance operations are mutating at a frightening pace; each successive election since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision has birthed new varieties of independent expenditure groups that deliver even more access for wealthy donors and corporations. This year, single-candidate expenditure groups are pervasive and represent perhaps the apex of this evolution.
Single-candidate expenditure groups are Super PACs or nonprofits that spend unlimited money to support just one candidate (or to attack only that candidate’s opponents). They are a descendant of the candidate-specific groups like Priorities USA that formed to support just one candidate for president in 2012—but now most Congressional candidates in tight races have one at their side.
These are extremely attractive options for donors because they offer the ability to evade campaign-finance limits entirely: if you are a coal magnate that wants to give Mitch McConnell money, you can’t donate more than $5,200 to his campaign this cycle under FEC rules. But if you turn to the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition, the 501(c)(4) that is exclusively supporting McConnell, you can give as much as you want. You don’t have to worry about giving money to a national Republican Super PAC that may or may not spend your money on McConnell’s race—you can effectively fund a shadow McConnell campaign in Kentucky.
Moreover, corporations and labor unions that are forbidden from contributing directly to candidates can freely give to these candidate-specific groups. And in the case of the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition and many other similar outfits, the public will never know because those groups are not required to disclose their donors.
“This is the future unfolding before our eyes, and it’s as dangerous as anything that’s going on in money in politics,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of the campaign finance reform group Democracy 21. “It is the end product of a Supreme Court that apparently set out to destroy the nation’s anti-corruption campaign-finance laws.”
A new report from the Brennan Center for Justice lays out how these groups are spending much more than they have in the past, while also disclosing less. Through the end of September, the ten biggest “buddy groups,” as they are sometimes called in the campaign-finance world, have spent $26 million in contested Senate races. Only four of these groups fully disclose their donors; many offer no disclosure at all:
While these groups did exist in 2012, they are far more common for members of Congress in the 2014 midterms. But the truly ominous turn is how many of them now are dark-money outfits that don’t disclose donors. Ian Vandewalker, the author of the Brennan Center report, noted that dark-money single-candidate groups weren’t significant spenders in past Senate races.