Government & Politics

Mysterious ‘dark money’ shadows Missouri, Kansas election campaigns

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Last week a company called One Nation said it purchased $1 million in television advertising time to help Sen. Roy Blunt win re-election in Missouri.

Tens of thousands of Missouri voters will see the group’s commercial. It’s likely, though, that they’ve never heard of One Nation, and don’t know who is behind the $1 million ad buy.

They may never know. One Nation, it turns out, is a dark money company.

“Dark money” — the use of nonprofit companies, most of them so-called social welfare organizations, to raise and spend money for political purposes — is now commonplace in races across the country. The money is considered “dark” because the companies, unlike campaign committees, aren’t required to publicly disclose their donors.

In return for that anonymity, social welfare groups are supposed to devote at least half of their activities to nonpolitical matters. Practically, though, that restriction is increasingly ignored — and hundreds of millions of dollars of secret political spending is the result.

The explosive growth of secret political cash worries and angers some advocacy groups.

“Americans have a right to know who is trying to buy access and influence through campaign contributions,” said Karen Hobert Flynn, president of Common Cause.

“The only secret here is that voters don’t know who is giving how much. That’s no way to run a democracy.”

In 2004, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, dark money groups spent less than $6 million on races for federal office. This year, to date, such groups have spent more than $50 million, and are on pace to outspend the $308 million invested in the 2012 election cycle.

And dark money is now expected to pour into this year’s U.S. Senate race in Missouri between Blunt and Jason Kander, the Democratic candidate. If their race is close — as most now think it will be — secret, dark money spending could eventually exceed spending from both of their campaigns and political parties in the state.

That trend could accelerate if activists believe the presidential race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton is a lost cause. At that point, experts say, secret money could flood into states like Missouri, where control of the Senate could be at stake.

“Money is going to be flowing into Senate races,” said Richard Skinner, an analyst with the Sunlight Foundation, a group that monitors political spending. “It’s starting to look like on both sides people are beginning to assume the presidential race (is over).”

Neil Newhouse of Public Opinion Strategies, a nationally-known GOP polling firm, said the Missouri Senate race is rising on many must-watch lists.

“D.C. I know is paying attention to it, and watching it,” he said. “It’s a competitive race.”

If that turns out to be the case, outside spending in Missouri’s Senate race could exceed the $10.5 million spent in 2010, when Blunt faced Democrat Robin Carnahan.

And much of the fundraising will be hidden from public view.

A group called American Crossroads, for example, spent more than $2.7 million in Missouri in 2010 to help Blunt. The political action committee, run by GOP operative Karl Rove, disclosed its donors that year, as required by law.

By contrast, One Nation — also controlled by Rove, according to several media reports — has already committed at least $3.3 million in Missouri. But because One Nation is a nonprofit social welfare company, voters won’t know where its cash is coming from.

The organization doesn’t apologize for the spending.

“One Nation is an issue advocacy nonprofit,” said spokesman Ian Prior. “We have been advertising in Missouri on issues that we believe are important to us, as well as the people of Missouri.”

Democrats, though, have sharply criticized the spending. “After nearly a year of TV ads from outside groups trying to prop him up, Senator Blunt’s approval ratings are still dangerously low,” said party spokesman Will Baskin-Gerwitz.

The use of secret nonprofits is popular among conservative and Republican operatives, according to analyst Robert Maguire, who writes for the Center for Responsive Politics. But Democrats and liberal groups use the tool as well.

VoteVets Action Fund, for example, is a nonprofit social welfare group that collects undisclosed donations and often buys ads favoring Democrats, Maguire has written. The group has endorsed Kander, but has not yet spent any money in Missouri.

Labor unions also spend millions on elections and independent ads, almost always supporting Democrats. That fundraising can also be kept from the public.

While dark money spending in Missouri may eventually exceed $10 million, it may still fall far short of spending in other, more competitive races in other states.

Independent groups — which include political action committees, unions, and other organizations, in addition to dark money companies — have already spent $35 million in Pennsylvania’s Senate race, for example.

Outside groups have shoveled $42 million into Ohio and $19 million into tiny New Hampshire, where incumbent Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a Republican, is facing a tough challenge from Democrat Maggie Hassan, the state’s governor.

And dark money isn’t limited to Senate races, either. Outside groups spent an astonishing $2.8 million on the recent House GOP primary in Kansas between U.S. Rep. Tim Huelskamp and Roger Marshall.

Huelskamp lost that race, and said outside spending and dark money was partly to blame. “The moneyed class, the Washington cartel came after me and they got me,” Huelskamp told the Washington Post.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a non-profit, spent $400,000 on the campaign to support Marshall.

Dark money is also an issue in state legislative races, experts say. Anonymous contributions to dark money groups jumped from an average of $82,630 in six states in 2006 to $3.1 million eight years later, according to the Brennan Center at New York University.

Secret ad spending is possible in Missouri’s governor race this fall. Missouri has one of the few competitive governor’s races on the 2016 calendar, which could prompt millions in outside cash for the race between Chris Koster and Eric Greitens.

Kansas City is also familiar with the tactic. A group called Freedom PAC received hundreds of thousands of dollars from a secret non-profit in 2011, when the earnings tax was on the ballot. The names of the anti-earnings tax donors were never revealed.

While knowing the identity of donors to dark money groups is impossible, identifying important connections among the operatives who run the groups is sometimes possible.

In 2014, for example, a dark money group called the Alliance for Freedom spent at least $1.7 million supporting Gov. Sam Brownback in his re-election bid in Kansas.

The head of the Alliance for Freedom was Barry Bennett, a longtime GOP activist who once ran Ben Carson’s presidential campaign. More recently, Bennett has worked for Donald Trump.

He’s been connected with conservative billionaires David and Charles Koch.

Remember One Nation, the group now buying ads in Missouri’s Senate race? Analysts say it’s run by Karl Rove.

But Bennett apparently plays a role as well. In 2014, IRS records show, Bennett — an ally of Trump, Brownback, Carson and the Kochs — was the chief officer of One Nation.

Today, a spokesman says, Bennett is on One Nation’s board of directors.

Bennett did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

Dave Helling: 816-234-4656, @dhellingkc

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