One Nation, a Republican dark money “nonprofit” focused on Senate races, has spent nearly $30 million on TV ads since its reboot in May 2015 – all without disclosing its billionaire donors. Now, it has taken its abuse of our campaign finance system to new lows. CNN reported that the group has donated $11 million directly to the Senate Leadership Fund, a Mitch McConnell-backed Super PAC. This is the latest and largest abuse of loopholes in federal law by a dark money group trying to get around political disclosure requirements.
These groups have devised an elaborate scheme to exploit legal loopholes. Voters in Senate battlegrounds such as New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Missouri, North Carolina, and Nevada have been saturated all year with One Nation “issue ads” on their televisions. These ads supposedly have nothing to do with elections, yet consistently praise the Republican candidates in those states.
In the wake of Supreme Court decisions such as Wisconsin Right To Life v. FEC and Citizens United v. FEC, One Nation and other dark money groups that claim 501(c)(4) nonprofit status can spend unlimited, undisclosed money to influence elections. These groups run such “issue ads” to get around a law that forbids political activity from being their “primary purpose.” In practice, this law means that 50% or less of their annual spending can be political – and these issue ads don’t count against that number.
One Nation’s surge of spending has helped disseminate pro-Republican messages for over a year. So why didn’t One Nation spend the newest $11 million itself, instead of giving it to the Senate Leadership Fund? It’s because for the last several weeks, One Nation has gone off the airwaves. 60 days before a general election (September 9th this year), TV ads related to candidates are automatically classified as being political ads.
If One Nation ran political TV ads within this 60-day window, they would be obligated to report this spending to the FEC. If they spent a significant amount of their yearly budget on political ads, they’d also run an increased risk of one day being designated as a political committee (though this distinction has not been strongly enforced by federal agencies). They would then be required to publicly disclose their donors.
The billionaires and corporations funding One Nation undoubtedly prefer that this doesn’t happen. Other than Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who reportedly gave the group $10 million, we don’t know who any of those donors are. That’s why they’re now using One Nation as a pass-through to dump millions of dollars into the Senate Leadership Fund.
The bottom line: although they have chosen secrecy rather than 8 more weeks of advertisements, One Nation has exploited loopholes and weak enforcement by federal agencies to spend over $40 million on the election without any hint of donor disclosure. And they’re not done yet. With the TV window closed, One Nation is adapting its tactics, as evidenced by its donation to SLF. Furthermore, the group’s YouTube page indicates that it has run digital “issue ads” in 6 states – a tactic that allows them to continue to influence elections with big money, without disclosing donors. The group is also sending direct mail.
Mitch McConnell and the other cynics behind One Nation are leveraging a broken system for their own partisan advantage. The proliferation of this secret “dark money” in our politics is a threat to the integrity of our democracy – its very existence prevents voters from making fully informed choices. In 2017, the new Administration, Congress and Court must all work together to rebuild accountability, reform our campaign finance system, and overturn mistaken decisions such as Citizens United and WRTL.