photo courtesy the Center for American Progress Action Fund
The origin of the phrase “dark money” when referring to indirect campaign funding from unknown sources is, perhaps appropriately, a bit murky.
It seems likely that the phrase was coined in this sense by the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit whose stated aim is open and accountable government. However, it really took off when left-leaning magazine Mother Jones began a regular column on the subject in the wake of the Citizens United decision.
Since then, Democrats have used the term with abandon to attack undisclosed campaign contributions - to their opponents. These protests reached a predictably high pitch in the run-up to this year’s midterm elections. Earlier this year, Senate Democrats introduced legislation that would have forced outside advocacy groups to publicly disclose their donors. The Democrats who introduced it surely knew it had no chance of passing, since similar measures fizzled in 2010 and 2012. But they needed to make it clear, in this election as in previous ones, that dark money is a problem.
That is, a problem when they aren’t using it themselves. In this election, Democrat-aligned nonprofits such as Patriot Majority USA allowed anonymous donors to underwrite advertising campaigns in races in Arkansas, Louisiana and North Carolina, among others. Democratic thinking this year seems to be, “If you can’t beat ‘em, try to join ‘em - but hedge your bets by claiming they’re cheating at the same time.”
As Casey Mann, the executive director of the North Carolina Democratic Party, put it, “These are the rules that are set before us. You have to actually win first… to get the kind of policies you want to see.” In other words, dark money is bad, but not so bad Democrats are willing to lose elections by foregoing it. It may sound hypocritical, but in the world of politics it seems fair enough.
But then we have outgoing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, opening new frontiers of hypocrisy by employing not only stealth money, but a stealth candidate. This is the same Harry Reid who, in June, gave testimony before the Senate Judiciary committee claiming “the flood of dark money [into campaigns] poses the greatest threat to our democracy that I have witnessed during my time in public service.” This was consistent with Reid’s aggressive and longstanding campaign against the Koch brothers, whom he has made the objects of his scorn for their political activities.
Yet in the campaign season that ended in last month’s Democratic rout, Reid’s former political advisers sent money to a candidate who was nominally not even associated with Reid’s party, in a last-ditch subterranean effort to save his party’s Senate majority.
The chicanery began with Reid and fellow Democrats pushing their own candidate out of the Senate race in Kansas, where incumbent Republican Pat Roberts was seen as vulnerable if his opposition could unite against him. After Chad Taylor, the Democrats’ nominee, dropped out of the race, the party opted not to replace him - leaving the field clear for the campaign of independent Greg Orman, who seemed the stronger challenger.
Orman tried to play coy with voters in reliably Republican Kansas about which caucus he would join if he made it to Washington. He insisted that, were he elected, neither side could take his vote for granted.
Yet Democrats were willing to take that chance. Political contributions to national party committees and super-PACs made after October 16 weren’t required to be disclosed until a month after the election. When these contributions came to light, it became clear that Democrats had doubled down on Orman.
Senate Majority PAC, a super-PAC run by Reid’s former advisers, sent about $1.5 million to two super-PACs supporting Orman. It seems obvious in hindsight that Democrats were careful to keep this support in the dark in order not to undermine Orman’s claim that he was not, in fact, aligned with Reid and his fellow Democrats.
Kansans were not fooled. While the race was very close in polls, with Orman leading slightly, on Election Day he lost to Roberts by a wide margin.
The Koch brothers make no secret about which candidates and which party they generally support, nor do many other prominent backers of both parties. But private citizens have a well-established constitutional right to freely associate in political causes and to do so anonymously if they prefer. The Supreme Court acknowledged that right to anonymity decades ago when it was exercised by supporters of the civil rights movement in the segregated South.
Unlike private citizens, who can vote or publish their political opinions anonymously if they like, we expect candidates for public office to at least be forthright about their intentions should they be elected. While Democrats did not break any rules, they certainly made it impossible to take their complaints about lack of transparency seriously.
Orman and Reid sought to use a smokescreen to add a vote to Reid’s caucus. If that doesn’t constitute midnight-dark politics, I don’t know what does.