Politics & Policy

Will Democrats’ Election-Reform Push Backfire on the Dark-Money Left?

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, joined by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, speaks to reporters at the U.S. Capitol, July 29, 2020. (Erin Scott/Reuters)
Democrats dominate dark-money spending and always have.

There’s more projection in Washington than in a chain of movie theaters. An excellent example of this is the Left’s relentless attack on “dark money,” cast as a distinctly conservative poison polluting American politics. So goes the hooey.

Just what it is, how much of it there is, who gets the bulk of the dark dough, and whether there is an approaching day of ruing for Democrats and their cash-flush “philanthropy” sidekicks, such as Arabella Advisors and the Tides Foundation — the Left’s superlative hypocrisy on the issue is matched by that of a supportive, echo-chamber media — are questions prompted by the legislation deemed so important, so vital and urgent, it gets the distinction of being numbered H.R. 1. The bill’s formal title is the “For the People Act of 2021” (we might suggest the “For the People Who Are Not Conservatives Act”), and it is sponsored by John Sarbanes (D., Md.). The Senate version’s sponsor is Jeff Merkley, the Oregon Democrat to the left of whom is the Pacific Ocean.

The legislation states that its mission is “to expand Americans’ access to the ballot box, reduce the influence of big money in politics, strengthen ethics rules for public servants, and implement other anti-corruption measures for the purpose of fortifying our democracy, and for other purposes.”

Yes, and unicorns are real.

The bill is a massive thing, and it should be, given its insatiable appetite. H.R. 1 intends to dictate and channel campaign spending (that pesky free-speech right); to essentially federalize elections by undermining the rights of individual states’ voters to set voter qualification, registration, and identity standards; and to stymie citizens’ right to ensure, in their localities, the integrity of elections and registration rolls (the non-cemetery ones). That’s among other things. (The Heritage Foundation provides an excellent analysis of this bill’s predecessor, introduced in the prior 116th Congress.)

About that “dark money” — it’s a reality. But in political parlance, translated by a compliant media, it has always been understood to mean undue influence of high-dollar conservative donors. Which may be why House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is the principal co-sponsor of H.R. 1, while Majority Leader Chuck Schumer grandstands likewise on behalf of the Senate sibling, lending it prestige. Or, it may not: Both Democratic leaders are champions of raising, directing, orchestrating, associating with, relying on, and spending dark money. Per the Washington Free Beacon, the duo quarterbacked the funneling of millions in dark cash into the 2020 congressional elections. In fact, the amount that a Schumer-related group pulled in and spent in 2020 was a massive increase over the 2016 and 2018 election cycles:

Majority Forward, a nonprofit with ties to Schumer’s Senate Majority PAC, pushed $57.4 million into super PACs that helped Democrats regain the majority in Congress’s upper chamber. The vast sum far eclipses the $6.2 million it funneled into election activity in the 2016 and 2018 cycles combined. The nonprofit does not disclose its donors, making it difficult to identify who provided the funding to back Schumer’s efforts.

Majority Forward’s election cash spike was made possible by a record-breaking fundraising haul from mid-2018 to mid-2019, when the group received $76 million in anonymous donations. That same year, it passed tens of millions to other left-wing nonprofits for its primary purpose of bankrolling voter engagement. Its largest donation was $14.8 million to America Votes, which later found itself under investigation in Georgia for allegedly sending ballot applications to non-residents.

And they say the right-wing conspiracy is vast!

A typical branding of dark money as conservative money, offered up by a typical Democrat, was demonstrated last year by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, who attacked the Right’s successes in judicial appointments as a consequence of a “network of well-funded legal advocacy groups that conservatives use to mobilize supporters.” That, he says, is something Democrats “lack.”

Yes, and again, unicorns. What’s lacking there is truth: Democrats dominate dark-money spending and always have. In the 2020 presidential election, Bloomberg reports, Joe Biden’s campaign got its hands on $145 million in dark money, five times as much as the Trump campaign. The hypocrisy/fixation nexus is a very real thing. Per the article:

Democrats have said they want to ban dark money as uniquely corrupting, since it allows supporters to quietly back a candidate without scrutiny. Yet in their effort to defeat Trump in 2020, they embraced it.

For example, Priorities USA Action Fund, the super political action committee that Biden designated as his preferred vehicle for outside spending, used $26 million in funds originally donated to its nonprofit arm, called Priorities USA, to back Biden. The donors of that money do not have to be disclosed.

Tabulating political expenditures made just prior to Election Day 2020, OpenSecrets.org calculated that liberal outfits topped conservative ones in the dark-buck-spending by 87 percent ($397 million to 212 million).

The lefty game plan behind the call to eliminate dark money — after having exploited it to secure the White House and both congressional houses — is to identify and publicize conservative donors. But that’s never where it ends: Long before cancel culture became a hashtag, the new Torquemadas of the Left were engaged in publicizing conservative donors for the purposes of intimidation, shunning, and getting them fired. Who can forget the chaos visited on Mozilla co-founder Brendan Eich for the temerity of making a $1,000 contribution to a California traditional-marriage referendum?

Now that Nancy and Chuck control the legislative process, and Biden holds the signing pen, what of H.R. 1, which — if it kiboshed the dark-money process by mandating donor transparency — could go far toward undoing their key bankrolling operation?

One might ask rhetorically: If anonymity is such a nasty practice (despite its being protected speech), why haven’t the donors to liberal dark-money organizations, many of which operate under tax-exempt status, such as the Biden Institute, publicized their contributions, or the groups themselves made transparent their donor file?

One might also ask, nonrhetorically: If the “For the People Act” becomes law, what are the consequences for monoliths like Arabella Advisors, which use nonprofit status to conduit billions to leftist outfits, the kind of places where shadows predominate and it is hard to know where the “cause” ends and partisan politics begin?

The Capital Research Center published an important study in 2019 about Arabella. Written by Hayden R. Ludwig, “Dark Money in Big Shadows” reveals the massive scope of the networking operation’s reach and influence, all of it abetted by donor anonymity:

The political Left often criticizes — and the mainstream media frequently report on — the network of center-right nonprofits funded by billionaire entrepreneurs Charles and David Koch. But few politicos know of a left-wing leviathan in Washington, D.C., with a reach rivaling that of the Koch network.

This study by the Capital Research Center documents a shadowy web into which nearly $600 million flowed in 2017, the most recent year for which data are available. Operating under the aegis of “philanthropy,” this network is housed in and staffed by a for-profit, privately held consultancy called Arabella Advisors, LLC. Arabella manages four nonprofit entities — the New Venture Fund, Sixteen Thirty Fund, Windward Fund, and Hopewell Fund — each of which shares an address and interlocking officers with Arabella.

Philanthropic advising is lucrative for Arabella, in part because its clients are so wealthy: it claims its donors’ assets are worth more than $100 billion. Between 2007 and 2017, Arabella’s four nonprofit Funds paid a combined $76 million in management fees to Arabella Advisors. Some of the nation’s largest grantmaking institutions, including the Rockefeller, Packard, and Kellogg Foundations, are donors to the funds managed by Arabella. It remains unclear why such large and powerful institutions seek outside philanthropic consulting, but presumably a significant part of Arabella’s appeal lies in its ability to obscure large financial transactions.

The line between philanthropy and political advocacy at Arabella is blurry indeed. Most of the projects hosted by the four Funds and financed by Arabella’s donors advocate for controversial positions on social issues, for the expansion of government — or both. Yet thanks to the unique financial arrangements of the network and the lack of donor disclosure, it is impossible to trace which organization pays for the various campaigns and political movements spawned by Arabella’s Funds.

Between 2013 and 2017, the Arabella network received a staggering $1.6 billion in contributions, which it has used to advance its donors’ agenda through dozens of “front” groups and “astroturf” initiatives. The Arabella network of funds is also growing rapidly: from 2013 to 2017, the network’s revenues grew by an incredible 392 percent. Arabella’s network often plays host to highly influential groups on the Left. For example, the Democracy Alliance, a network of donors co-founded by billionaire George Soros, has used the New Venture Fund and Sixteen Thirty Fund to host at least eight projects that don’t disclose their original funders. While financial information for the 2018 election year has not been disclosed, the Arabella network will likely show continued steep revenue growth.

It’s difficult to imagine that groups on the left, from the League of Conservation Voters and Demand Justice to Planned Parenthood and the NAACP, that benefit from dark money will want to disclose their donors.

If Democrats like Merkley and Whitehouse get their way and there is a Senate hearing on the legislation, Republican senators should demand appearances from officials from Arabella, Majority Forward, and other left-wing outfits steeped in the dark-money arts, and ask them to reveal their donors and very furtive financial arrangements.

Will Chuck and Nancy let any of this happen?

Maybe not. And maybe the “For the People Act” will end up being just that. An act.


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