WASHINGTON — When allies of former President Barack Obama set up a super PAC to support his 2012 re-election, the White House disowned the group, The New York Times published a scathing editorial and former Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin gave a speech warning Democrats would "lose our soul" if they allowed big money into the party.
But fears of being outgunned trumped those principled objections and, less than a decade later, Democratic super PACs are spending more than Republican ones. Liberal "dark money" groups, which obscure the source of their funds, outspent conservative ones for the first time in 2018. Even reform hawks like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders had their own personal big-money groups supporting their presidential campaigns.
"Their mantra of not 'unilaterally disarming' was really their justification for learning how to master super PACs and dark money and all that, and they're doing a better job of it right now than the Republicans," said Craig Holman, a lobbyist for the good-government group Public Citizen.
Advocates are concerned with super PACs, which can accept donations of unlimited size but have to reveal the names of their donors and regularly disclose their activity. But they're more worried about dark money groups: nonprofit organizations that can't be as explicitly political as super PACs, but can keep their donors secret forever and don't have to reveal much about activities before elections.
While concerns about campaign finance reform that once animated Democratic voters have been eclipsed by the desire to oust President Donald Trump, advocates are left to wonder if the party can really be trusted to follow through on its promises to dismantle a system that may help them get elected.
"If Democrats were to win the Senate and the White House, there is reason to be concerned that they may not carry through with their commitments," Holman added. "I have no doubt that we are going to have to hold their word over their head."
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The Democratic National Committee adopted a platform last month calling for a ban on dark money, and Joe Biden says one of his first priorities as president would be signing the sweeping reform bill House Democrats passed last year that would, among other things, match small donations 6-to-1 to encourage grassroots giving.
But his campaign also says they'll take all the help they can get for now and that bill, known as H.R.1, would have to compete for limited legislative bandwidth with efforts to address the coronavirus pandemic, the economy and much more.
Republicans, who generally oppose major campaign finance reform efforts, cry hypocrisy.
"It's just like everything else Biden stands for. He believes it until it's of political benefit to reverse himself," said Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh.
Democrats, however, argue that the only way they can rein in big money in politics is to first use big money in politics to win.
"We aren't going to unilaterally disarm against Donald Trump and right-wing conservatives, but look forward to the day when unlimited money and super PACs are a thing of the past, even if it means putting our own PAC out of business," said Guy Cecil, the chairman of Priorities USA, the super PAC first founded to support Obama's re-election.
On principle, Democrats opposed Citizens United, the Supreme Court's landmark 2010 decision that opened the floodgates to virtually unlimited money in politics. But they also were against it because they were sure Republicans and their big-business allies would outspend them.
At first, Obama set the example for his party by trying to keep his hands clean of the super PAC game. "It was just this slog to try to get Democrats to think there was any benefit at all to giving to outside groups," said a Democrat involved in early efforts to raise money for a super PAC.
Quickly, though, party leaders concluded their position against unlimited donations and dark money wasn't tenable, and it turned out there was plenty of it flowing on the Democratic side, too. Obama eventually blessed Priorities USA, which helped kick off a proliferation of liberal big-money groups.
"If Democrats don't compete, it would be like preparing for a nuclear war by grabbing your fly swatter," said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic operative who has worked for both campaigns and outside groups.
Democrats at first said they felt sick about doing it and vowed to hold themselves to a higher standard. They would support super PACs, which publicly disclose their donors, but railed against dark money groups, which don't. But that standard eventually eroded, the apologies grew more perfunctory and they ended up diving in head-first, looking for new loopholes to exploit. And Trump's election has supercharged the spending.
In 2016, conservative dark money dwarfed liberal dark money nearly 4-to-1: $143.7 million to $37.8 million. But two years later, in the 2018 midterms, the backlash against Trump helped liberal dark money groups outspend their counterparts for the first time, according to an analysis by Issue One, a bipartisan political reform organization. And they're on track to potentially do it again this year.
It's impossible to comprehensively track dark money spending in real-time, which is one of the most controversial parts about it. But the limited picture that has emerged so far in 2020 shows $14.2 million in dark money has been spent supporting Democrats or against Republicans versus $9.8 million to support Republicans or attack Democrats, according to Open Secrets.
"Campaign spending is frequently like an arms race. Once one side develops a new weapon, both sides want to have it in their arsenal," said Michael Beckel, research director for Issue One.
Taking dark money to new levels
Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, which runs the campaign finance data warehouse OpenSecrets.org, said her group has tracked liberal groups "taking dark money in politics to a new level of opacity" and caught them trying new tricks, such as creating faux news sites to make their attack ads seem more credible.
While overall dark money spending is roughly even between the parties right now, Democrats have a clear edge in congressional races, Krumholz said. Around 65 percent of dark money TV ads in 2020 Senate races and 85 percent of dark money TV ads in House races are sponsored by liberal groups, according to Krumholz.
"Unfortunately, there has been comfort with this that has grown over time on both sides of the aisle," Krumholz said. "Nobody wants to be the sucker that is playing by the rules when someone is getting away with murder."
One large dark money group, the Sixteen Thirty Fund, has funneled millions of dollars to more than 100 liberal groups, accepting individual donations as large as $51.7 million and $26.7 million, all without having to reveal any information about who is behind those donations.
Amy Kurtz, the Sixteen Thirty Fund's executive director, said they're just playing by the rules.
"We support and have lobbied in favor of reform to the current campaign finance system (through H.R. 1), but we are equally committed to following the current laws to level the playing field for progressives in this election," Kurtz said in a statement.
Now, many super PACs, which disclose their donors, are routing money through allied nonprofits, which do not have to make their contributors' names public, further obscuring the ultimate source of the cash.
"For a voter who simply wants to know where the money is coming from and going to, you almost have to be a full-time researcher or investigative reporter to connect all the dots," Krumholz said.
Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., remains one of the fiercest opponents of campaign finance reform, not only blocking bills like H.R.1 and disclosure measures, but even intervening in legal battles to overturn state campaign finance rules.
He sees it as a free speech issue, hailing the Citizens United decision as "an important step in the direction of restoring First Amendment rights."
All this leaves campaign finance reform advocates dependent on Democrats winning in November — even if it takes some dark money to get them there.
"We are on the cusp of having the best opportunity to repair the campaign finance system since the Watergate scandal of the 1970s," said Fred Wertheimer, a veteran good-government advocate and president of Democracy 21. "But that depends on how the elections come out."