In 2018 midterms, liberal dark money groups outspent conservative counterparts for first time since Citizens United

Total dark money spending since Citizens United nears $1 billion.

The 2018 midterm election marked the first time liberal dark money groups outspent their conservative counterparts since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in January 2010, according to a new Issue One analysis of data from the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

Combined, dark money groups spent approximately $150 million during the 2018 election cycle, with liberal dark money groups accounting for about 54 percent of that sum. At the same time, conservative dark money groups accounted for about 31 percent of all dark money spending, and groups classified as bipartisan or nonpartisan accounted for about 15 percent. One liberal dark money group — Majority Forward — alone accounted for about $1 of every $3 in dark money spending in 2018.

The total amount of dark money spending since the Citizens United decision that has been reported to the nation’s top election regulator has now climbed to at least $960 million, and it is on track to exceed $1 billion during the 2020 election, when control of both Congress and the White House are at stake.

“As we head into the 2020 presidential election, both parties must reject the opaque ways some of their wealthiest donors are influencing elections,” said Issue One CEO Nick Penniman. “Dark money is the most toxic force in politics. Members of Congress are the ones being mugged in the dark alleys. Regardless of their party affiliation, they should have a strong personal incentive to get rid of dark money.”

Conservative groups had long dominated the dark money game. As recently as the 2016 election cycle, conservative dark money groups outspent liberal ones by a factor of nearly 4-to-1, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. And in 2010, the first election in the aftermath of Citizens United, conservative dark money groups outspent liberal ones by roughly 11-to-1.

“All Americans have a right to know who is trying to influence their votes,” said Issue One Executive Director Meredith McGehee. “This principle has been upheld repeatedly by the Supreme Court and is at the heart of our system, which depends on transparency for accountability. Now is the time for Democrats and Republicans to work together to address the out-of-control dark money in politics.”

Voters want to shine the light on dark money. Issue One’s own election eve poll revealed overwhelming public support from Republicans, Democrats, and independents for requiring the full disclosure of all funds being raised and spent to influence elections. Just last week, Reps. Mike Gallagher (R-WI), Derek Kilmer (D-WA), and Kathleen Rice (D-NY) re-introduced a bipartisan bill that would bring more transparency and accountability to political spending.

SECRETIVE GROUPS SPENT MILLIONS IN 2018

The liberal group Majority Forward ranked as the top-spending dark money group ahead of the 2018 midterm election. It reported about $46 million in political spending to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) — accounting for about $1 of every $3 in dark money spent during the midterms.

Majority Forward does not disclose its funders, but obscure public records reviewed by Issue One show that, in the past, its donors have included labor unions such as the National Education Association, companies such as CVS Health Corp., nonprofits such as the Environmental Defense Action Fund, and political committees such as the political action committee of Intercontinental Exchange, the parent company of the New York Stock Exchange.

Federal disclosures show that Majority Forward was active in 10 high-profile Senate races in 2018, and it was the top-spending outside group in one of them — Montana. There, incumbent Democratic Sen. Jon Tester narrowly prevailed over Republican challenger Matt Rosendale as super PACs and dark money groups combined to spend about $35 million to influence the race, with Majority Forward alone spending about $4.2 million.

This opaque spending spree catapulted Majority Forward up the rankings of the top all-time dark money groups. Since it was formed in June of 2015, Majority Forward has spent about $56 million in elections — enough to rank it as the No. 5 top dark money group since Citizens United. That’s up from the No. 17 spot two years earlier. (It narrowly missed making the top 15 list that Issue One published in September 2018 of the top dark money groups active between 2010 and 2016.)

“The 2018 midterms showed that Democrats are more than willing to embrace dark money,” said Issue One ReFormers Caucus Co-chair Rep. Zach Wamp (R-TN). “This should be a wake-up call to Republicans. Secret spending in elections has the potential to denigrate every candidate in every election, and candidates are losing complete control of the messages in their campaigns to these outside groups. Now is the time for Republicans and Democrats to work together to ensure that campaigns are not fought in the shadows.”

Added Issue One ReFormers Caucus Co-chair Amb. Tim Roemer (D-IN): “Secretive front groups designed to deceive voters and hide donors, whether super liberal or ultra conservative, should have no place in our campaigns. Congress should make bipartisan reform to bring more transparency to political spending a top priority.”

Read more about the top 15 dark money groups that accounted for more than 75 percent of all dark money spending since the Citizens United decision.