Democrats Want To End Dark Money, But First They Want To Use It "I have no misgivings," said the head of one group. "On election night 2018, I didn't hear anybody go, 'Oh jeez, we won! But gosh, wasn't all that stuff really bad that helped everybody win?' "
NPR logo

Democrats Want To End Dark Money, But First They Want To Use It

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/720050070/720930035" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Democrats Want To End Dark Money, But First They Want To Use It

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Last year's midterm elections marked a turning point in big-money politics. Liberals have overtaken conservatives in one type of so-called dark money - that is, money from secret donors to tax-exempt groups that's spent on explicitly political messaging. At the same time, congressional Democrats are pushing to make these contributions transparent, as NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Most of the best-known secret money groups are conservative - the National Rifle Association, Americans for Prosperity, Crossroads GPS and others. So how much do Democrats want to expose this kind of politicking? H.R.1, which would force tax-exempt groups to disclose their big donors, was the first bill passed by the Democratic-majority House this year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Congress is totally corrupt.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Eighty-six percent of people agree.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) That means whoever you vote for, they're going to screw you over.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) I feel totally helpless.

OVERBY: This pro-Democratic TV ad ran in the 2018 midterm elections.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) No suppression, no gerrymandering, no foreign influence...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) What about dark money?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) No dark money. Full disclosure of donors and lobbyists.

OVERBY: The slam on dark money came from Future Majority, a tax-exempt group that uses dark money. It plans to spend $60 million in the 2020 elections. Conservatives embraced tax-exempt groups starting around the 2008 campaign. The Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling in 2010 made the groups more versatile. Democrats have mostly scorned them. But Mark Riddle, director of Future Majority, is among the Democratic pragmatists.

MARK RIDDLE: I have no misgivings. On election night in 2018, I didn't hear anybody go, oh, geez, we won. But gosh, wasn't all that stuff really bad that helped everybody win (laughter)?

OVERBY: Riddle said Future Majority will concentrate on messaging, branding and strategic advice, mostly in the Midwestern states.

RIDDLE: I think looking at the best tactics and the best words and the best images is going to be really, really important going against one of the great marketers in Donald Trump.

OVERBY: But after that, he said, he'd rather not have secret money.

RIDDLE: I actually do believe that the House Bill 1 is, maybe, the most important piece of legislation that can be passed.

OVERBY: In the 2018 elections, the secret money groups spent about $150 million on explicitly political activities. That's according to a report by the government reform group, Issue One. It said about one-third of that spending was done by one group, Majority Forward, which mainly attacks Republican Senate candidates with ads like this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) Martha McSally is lying through her teeth. Dangerous lies with dire consequences...

OVERBY: Issue One's Michael Beckel said researchers worked to identify the donors behind the groups.

MICHAEL BECKEL: We turned over every rock we could, and we could only identify about $2 of every $9 that these groups had raised.

OVERBY: But here's the long view. The political parties have been fighting over the same issue since the 1980s. It's how to get and use soft money - money that's exempt from the contribution limits and from the transparency of campaign finance laws. Sometimes a strategy starts with one party, sometimes with the other. Robin Kolodny is a political scientist at Temple University in Philadelphia. She studies the history of campaign finance.

ROBIN KOLODNY: One party stretches the law, gets away with it. And then the other party just goes ahead and does the same thing. And then eventually, the FEC will just say yeah, obviously. I guess this must be OK.

OVERBY: And now, this variety of secret money has taken root on both sides.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLOWLY ROLLING CAMERA'S "CROSSINGS")

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.