Two years ago, the race for Maine’s 2nd Congressional District seat generated millions of dollars in spending to influence voters. The source of a good chunk of that money was secret, thanks in part to loopholes in federal election law that are routinely exploited by both conservative and liberal groups.
Now, the winner of that election, Democratic U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, wants to close those loopholes.
So far, Golden’s re-election bid has been relatively quiet, but that is likely to change next Tuesday, when Republican primary voters choose their nominee to challenge him. While none of Golden’s three potential challengers currently have an abundance of campaign cash, they probably will not need it if the race plays out the way it did two years ago, when groups attempting to influence the contest spent nearly $10 million on political advertising. Some of that was done by groups with no limits on spending or giving — and no requirement to reveal their donors.
“When someone starts wanting to contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars, or millions of dollars, and they don’t want voters to know who they are — maybe because they’re trying to hide their true objective or angle — that’s a real problem for democracy,” Golden said.
Golden is talking about dark money election spending. It’s a term that has become ubiquitous in contemporary politics, and it is often confused with electioneering by super PACs, political action committees, that can take in and spend unlimited amounts of money to influence an election.
But there’s a fundamental difference between super PACs and dark money groups: super PACs have to disclose donors, and dark money groups don’t.
In fact, dark money groups often pose as tax-exempt social welfare organizations, a designation that allows them to influence elections while pretending to have some other mission.
“This community has seen very dark times with the mills closing. Lucas St. Clair was able to sit with the locals and hear their concerns. The Katahdin Monument has definitely given this area the boost that it really needed. We have to protect it,” said the narrator in the ad by the Maine Outdoor Alliance, a nonprofit group created right before the 2018 Democratic primary among Golden, Lucas St. Clair and Craig Olson.
The ad was designed to promote St. Clair’s congressional bid without explicitly telling people to vote for him. It exploits a loophole that allows nonprofit groups to claim they are engaging in issue advocacy and not electioneering, an activity that is limited by the IRS.
Ambiguity in the IRS definition of electioneering has made nonprofits the go-to vehicle for dark money groups, which spent nearly $150 million on federal races in 2018 and hundreds of millions in the elections preceding it, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Golden railed against dark money during the 2018 campaign and drew the support of groups like End Citizens United, which spent nearly $300,000 on his behalf. He is now sponsoring a bill called the Crack Down on Dark Money Act, which limits political activity by so-called 501(c)(4) nonprofits to 10 percent of their annual expenditures; if they did not, they would have to file as different organizations that file quarterly donor reports. It would also require a 501(c)(4) that makes any political expenditure to reveal donors who gave at least $5,000, and it also clarifies the definition of political intervention to make it easier for the IRS to enforce its electioneering rules.
Golden acknowledges that members of Congress have had limited success with these types of reforms.
“Frankly, I believe a lot of people in Washington on both sides of the aisle and everywhere in between don’t want to see this type of change,” Golden said.
Despite congressional resistance to overhauling an electioneering system that is favored by big-money donors who would prefer to remain in the shadows, Golden believes there is potential for a snowballing of bipartisan support — especially as constituents become increasingly turned off by an explosion in secret election spending.
The same goes for the dozen bills he is cosponsoring this session that do everything from abolishing corporate PACs to closing loopholes that allow foreign-owned companies to secretly influence U.S. elections.
Golden is hopeful those proposals will be taken up by the current Congress, although none are likely to change the rules that guide this year’s election.
This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.