“I’m a secretive LLC with a misleading name, and I approve this message”
Nonprofits are on track to spend more than ever on the 2016 race “It’s much harder for the public to see what’s going on”
Presidential campaigns face a Jan. 31 deadline for disclosing their donors to the Federal Election Commission. So do super PACS, the independent political groups that are allowed to raise unlimited amounts of money from donors to support specific candidates. The filings, the first since June, will reveal the identities of people who have spent millions trying to influence the outcome of the 2016 election.
But millions more are being spent by organizations that are never required to disclose their donors at all: nonprofit issue-advocacy groups. According to Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group data, such groups have spent more than $213.6 million on political ads in the current election cycle, $10.5 million of it for ads focused on presidential candidates. That puts the groups on track to exceed the $309 million nonprofits spent on ads and other political communications in 2012, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Under current rules, nonprofit advocacy groups can spend up to 50 percent of their budget on political causes without ever having to reveal any details about the interests of their funders. Since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which lifted restrictions on political spending for individuals and corporations, nonprofits have been allowed to campaign for and against specific candidates. “The campaigns are more complex, as are the money networks,” says Center for Responsive Politics Executive Director Sheila Krumholz. “It’s much harder for the public to see what’s going on behind the scenes.”
The biggest spender in the presidential race among so-called dark money groups—those that don’t disclose their donors—is the Conservative Solutions Project, a nonprofit formed in 2014 to support Republican candidate Marco Rubio. (The Florida senator also has an allied super PAC called Conservative Solutions.) The nonprofit has spent about $8.1 million on ads featuring excerpts of Rubio’s speeches. The group has spent $2.9 million on national cable, with the remainder divided among local stations that reach viewers in Iowa ($1.3 million), New Hampshire ($1.5 million), and South Carolina ($2.4 million). “They’re definitely gaming the system,” says Paul S. Ryan, executive director of the Campaign Legal Center, a watchdog group that’s asked the Justice Department to investigate the group’s spending, arguing it constitutes a tangible benefit for Rubio. The DOJ would neither confirm nor deny whether it’s investigating. Spokesman Jeff Sadosky says the group is simply focused on “advocating for a conservative agenda.”
How much money Conservative Solutions Project has raised won’t become public until after the election. Its annual tax returns are due four months after the end of its fiscal year in May. Filers can get an automatic fourmonth extension. That means information about its fundraising and spending during the presidential primary season won’t become public until 2017. Rubio isn’t the only candidate with nonprofit backing. Jeb Bush has a group called Right to Rise Policy Solutions alongside his super PAC, called Right to Rise. The super PAC pays for ads, and the nonprofit runs a website promoting Bush’s positions on national security, education reform, and biomedical innovation. Other nonprofit groups that have gone after presidential candidates don’t have visible links to active campaigns. The Foundation for a Secure and Prosperous America, a nonprofit founded in 2007 to support Republican John Mccain’s 2008 presidential run, spent $290,000 in April 2015 running ads in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina attacking Rand Paul for supporting nuclear negotiations with Iran. As recently as December 2014, according to its most recent filing with the IRS, the group had no income and was about $4,500 in the red.
Donors have also used limited liability corporations to shield their political activism. An LLC called Opportunity News Media spent $14 million running ads from July through September in Ohio and Colorado that ended with this tag line: “There are still people who believe opportunity lives in America, and we call ourselves Republicans.”
“There may have been one large donor who thought this was a great idea, or maybe it’s part of a larger strategy,” says Travis Ridout, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project, which studies political advertising. “I’d be curious to know who’s funding that.” �Bill Allison
“They’re definitely gaming the system.” ——Campaign Legal Center Executive Director Paul S. Ryan