OOPS–The Dark Money Folks Learn Conservatives Hate Dark Money Too!

Image by Aidan Bartos @bartos; found via unsplash.com

“Unfortunately, we’ve found that [inhibiting billionaires from buying elections] is a winning message, for both the general public and also conservatives. It was most persuasive, convincing, riled them up the most.”

The speaker is Kyle McKenzie, research director for Stand Together, a nonprofit advocacy group run by the right-wing oil billionaire Charles Koch. McKenzie was presenting survey findings at a meeting held on January 8—two days after it became clear the Democrats had gained control of the Senate.

Other meeting participants included long-time tax opponent Grover Norquist and two prominent Republican staff members: Caleb Hays is general counsel to Republicans on the House Administration Committee; Steve Donaldson is a policy adviser to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

McKenzie’s findings were not what these folks hoped to hear.

Jane Mayer, a long-time staff writer for The New Yorker, somehow acquired this remarkable tape of a conference call among conservative nonprofits and Republican politicians.

(Due to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, so-called “social welfare” organizations don’t have to publicly reveal their donors. But under tax laws, such groups are supposed to be nonpartisan and not collaborate with politicians…)

Mayer wrote about this meeting in the magazine and also discussed it in a podcast with New Yorker editor David Remnick. When she heard the tape, she told Remnick, “I nearly fell off my chair.” You can hear a portion of it above her article. (You may have to sign up for free access.)

Mayer is also the author of Dark Money, a book I believe is must reading for anyone seeking to understand how our lives have been shaped by the likes of the Koch brothers and other billionaires through their use of dark money over the decades. She is extremely knowledgeable about the players in this arena.

This urgent meeting, she reports, was organized by “the State Policy Network, a confederation of right-wing think tanks with affiliates in every state.”

What, specifically, had prompted it?

Concerns that with the Democrats in the majority, HR.1, the wide-ranging “For the People Act of 2021,” might actually become law. This bill, you may recall, expands voter registration and voter access, confronts gerrymandering, addresses ethics in all three branches of government, and—of greatest concern to the dark money crowd—changes campaign finance laws to reduce the impact of money on our political system. For example, it requires disclosures of the identities of donors who contribute more than $10,000.

HR.1 passed the House in March and is now awaiting action in the Senate (as S.1). It has been widely praised as a sweeping advance for our democracy.

McKenzie noted that his group had two goals with its research: to obtain “a realistic picture of what the public thinks about HR.1,” and to “see if we find any message to activate and persuade conservatives” to oppose it. They found “very mixed results.”

To the dismay of those assembled, McKenzie’s findings revealed that the bill generally appeals to conservatives as well as other voters.

From Mayer’s article:

“When presented with a very neutral description” of the bill, “people were generally supportive,” McKenzie said, adding that “the most worrisome part . . . is that conservatives were actually as supportive as the general public was when they read the neutral description.” In fact, he warned, “there’s a large, very large, chunk of conservatives who are supportive of these types of efforts.”

The bill’s financial disclosure requirements were the focus of the private meeting participants’ fear and ire. “The left is not stupid, they’re evil,” said Grover Norquist of these efforts. “They know what they’re doing. They have correctly decided that this is the way to disable the freedom movement.”

And Steve Donaldson, the McConnell adviser, said: “When it comes to donor privacy, I can’t stress enough how quickly things could get out of hand. We have to hold our people together,” he said, adding that the fight against this bill will be “long” and “messy,” and McConnell won’t back down.

The stakes are high. The For the People Act has the following requirements:

“greater disclosure of the identities of donors who pay for election ads—including those released on digital platforms, which currently fall outside of such legal scrutiny.”
—identification of donors who give $10,000 or more to social-welfare groups “if that donation is spent to sway elections. Donors who fund non-election-oriented activities by such groups can remain anonymous.”
—“the disclosure, for the first time, of large donors trying to exert control over the selection of judicial nominees. This provision appears to target groups such as the Judicial Crisis Network, on the right, and Demand Justice, on the left, which have mounted multimillion-dollar public-advocacy campaigns to influence the confirmation of Supreme Court nominees.”

Knowing that they couldn’t appeal to the public to oppose the bill, these “social welfare groups” seem to have decided to ignore their voters and focus on an “under-the-dome” campaign—meaning concentrating on the Senators who hold the fate of S.1 in their hands. Thus, Mayer opened her article by pointing out that Republicans were depicting the bill as an “unpopular partisan ploy.”

The brazen and shameless Ted Cruz, for example, (my words, not Mayer’s) called the bill “a brazen and shameless power grab by Democrats.”

McKenzie reported that they had trouble finding messaging that persuaded conservative voters to question the bill. Even calling it “cancel culture” that inhibited the expression of conservatives’ opinions didn’t resonate. “It really ranked at the bottom; that was definitely a little concerning for us.”

They tried tying it to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who’d said the bill would help hold Donald Trump accountable; 31% were troubled by that association.

People were moved, however, when they were told that the bill was opposed by Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, and organizations like the Koch group, suggesting there was politically diverse opposition. But Mayer points out that message was faulty. Planned Parenthood, in fact, fully supports the bill.

The ACLU supports nearly all of it but has agreed with Koch et al that public disclosure of donors’ names could lead to harassment, though advocates of disclosure maintain there’s no evidence to support that concern.

With their “under-the-dome” campaign, the groups turned their efforts to individual senators. They’ve been pressuring Joe Manchin to oppose the legislation, just as they’ve pushed him to oppose the filibuster, Mayer writes.

How much dark money has infiltrated our political campaigns? Mayer cites figures from the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics:

“In the 2020 federal election cycle, more than a billion dollars was spent by dark-money groups that masked the identity of their donors…The top spender was One Nation, a dark-money social-welfare group tied to McConnell.”

Though these dark money tactics used to be the sole province of Republicans, liberal Democrats outspent conservatives in 2020 for the first time. Nevertheless, it is the Democrats who are trying to rein in these practices, and they’re getting no help from across the aisle.

Mayer concludes:

“Pressure tactics from dark-money groups may work on individual lawmakers. The legislation faces an uphill fight in the Senate. But, as the January 8th conference call shows, opponents of the legislation have resorted to ‘under-the-dome-type strategies’ because the broad public is against them when it comes to billionaires buying elections.”

She’s surely right that the bill’s fate in the Senate is questionable, but perhaps the larger message here is that despite our views that we are hopelessly divided in this country, the bills that President Biden and the Democrats have passed—and introduced—really do have majority support across party lines.

And that means the President is right to keep appealing to the American people, while we must work harder to elect representatives who respond to their constituents—rather than ignore them or actually defy their wishes.


30 thoughts on “OOPS–The Dark Money Folks Learn Conservatives Hate Dark Money Too!

  1. Annie, the problem with voting in America has always been not enough people voting. Efforts to make more vote should be applauded. Yet, one party’s leadership has been executing a plan for more than ten years to restrict voting under the guise of voter fraud. This is one more example of the base not realizing they are voting against their own interests. Keith

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I agree, Keith, but I believe we have entered new territory now. Biden is absolutely right in stressing that his big ideas have broad appeal. We are in a messaging battle. And when I read that the right-wing leaders are terrified because they can’t find the right messages to persuade their voters to vote against their own best interests, I was encouraged. So we must do it all: persuade more people to vote, try to combat the discriminatory laws that prevent people from voting, and try to expand the Democratic margins in House and Senate.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Annie, well said. My former party, which I left thirteen years ago, is not even looking in the right place for messaging. Their messaging is being driven by so-called leaders who are throwing stuff against the wall to see if it sticks and much of it is made up stuff. As conservative David Brooks said about the former president while he was in the job, “he has no sense of decency or empathy.” Brooks was lamenting yet again, how the former president was not very good at comforting people in times of tragedy, as he was to busy trying to look good.

        As for messaging, people may not agree with their policies, but the Democrats are at least trying to help people and do things. The Republicans are just a party adrift, bereft of ideas. But, they made their own bed. Keith

        Liked by 2 people

  2. A thought about billionaires. If you had a billion dollars and spent $1,000,000 every year… it would take you a thousand years to spend it all. Does anyone really think that someone “earns” a billion dollars?

    Liked by 3 people

  3. An eye-opening post, Annie! The first paragraph had me growling. I’ve made no secret over the years that I have no use for millionaires, let alone billionaires. They didn’t get that much money by being altruists, and the fact that they have that much money tells me they are not philanthropists (with a few notable exceptions). To know that their money is more important than our rights to such politicians as Mitch McConnell and others, is not news, but nonetheless it raises the hackles of those of us who pay taxes to support our government. Thanks for this post … I will take a look at Ms. Mayer’s article later when I have more time.


    1. You sorta read my mind, Jill. I woke up thinking I should elaborate on my response to Joseph: What billionaires don’t have —and the words that came next were precisely what you said, (“with a few notable exceptions”), is any sense of understanding or appreciation for the ways that government has helped them make their billions. Elizabeth Warren has enumerated this governmental “hand up” well. But instead of feeling responsibility to pay back at all, they’ve avoided taxes and pressured government to bend to their demands re: deregulation, etc. The result has been the growing income inequities of the past 40 years.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Most of the billionaires in this world started life with a silver spoon in their mouth, but I wonder … if a person starts at the bottom and through hard work and a bit of luck becomes very successful, is there some point in his/her wealth that he/she suddenly becomes blind to the needs of the world, puts their own wealth ahead of the needs of those less fortunate?


  4. Keith,

    I feel the need to stress one point: Jane Mayer’s article reveals that people we don’t expect are, in fact, agreeing with certain Democratic policies; that’s why these dark money devotees are so worried about those poll results.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Annie, that is good to hear, we just need more of them. I was glad to see that 55% of Republicans agreed with the Chauvin verdict, which means that a majority ignored the Fox News entertainer opinions. Keith


  5. Reblogged this on Filosofa's Word and commented:

    For the most part, the only people who favour allowing the wealthy to buy elections are … the wealthy. And, of course, the politicians who sell their souls downriver for those billionaire’s dollars. Our friend Annie has an eye-opening post on the topic that I think you will find quite interesting … and anger-inducing as well. Thank you, Annie!


    1. Thank you, Jill! With regard to the question you’re pondering, it would be interesting to know how the newer, “self-made” billionaires compare with their inherited wealth counterparts in terms of charitable giving. But to our point here, how many in both groups are trying to make America more equitable and democratic? Surely, far too few.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I am talking through my hat here, but Bill Gates is such a self-made billionaire, and I understand he does give quite a bit to charities–though his choices of charities are not always that altruistic. The thing is, he still has multiple billions of dollars sitting around doing nothing but earning more money for him, and doing little to help those in need. He is sucking money out of the economy with the best of the silver-spoon billionaires. How many thousands of years would it take his heirs to spend that money at $1 milion a year? Hoarding money is an unconscionable thing to do, but even Bill Gates is doing it. I wonder how he sleeps at night?


      2. I don’t think Bill Gates is the best example, Raw God. He and Warren Buffett created a “Giving Pledge” campaign in 2010 to encourage philanthropy among the super rich: those who signed pledged to donate at least 50% of their wealth to charity. Of course, that still leaves them with a gazillion dollars, but it shows some social conscience. I’d have to do more research to see what difference this campaign has made. I do know that the Gates Foundation is the largest charitable foundation in the US. It’s an interesting topic—though I agree with you that the excesses remain shameful: it’s not “soaking the rich” to come up with some equitable tax system when we’re such a rich country and the wealth disparities are so huge.


      3. Please, rawgod, one word, no capitals. But that is unimportant. Gates was the first names to came to mind. I’m really not up on charitable billionaires. I was trying to address generalities with a specific example, but as I specified,
        I could have been talking through my hat.


  6. As for the dark money thing, once it started buying power, will there ever be a way to stop it? Dents might be made like The Proples’ Act, but other methods will be quickly found to distribute that dark money. Power loves power. It will not easily give up any bit of it.


  7. Catching up to this post, Annie. As always, so enlightening. The newer self-made billionaires could be a whole new animal. Young people, purportedly tech as that’s where the likely fortunes are still being made, and seized perhaps with a sense of disgust at what they see in the world? (I’m thinking the Door Dash founders, for example, not Facebook.) If even a few resist the dark side, that would be progress. As for Jane Mayer, she’s amazing. Been reading her for years.


    1. I hope you’re right about the dot com billionaires, Denise. I think I’d like to delve more deeply into this topic at some point.

      Yes, Jane Mayer is terrific. And she and Sen Sheldon Whitehouse have been the most consistent voices I’ve heard on this important issue.


  8. Thanks for your summary of this very important bill Annie. The level of cynicism in politics is off the charts. Strategists are now relatively open about testing out messaging until they find the pitch that dupes the greatest number of people.

    I have to wonder if the GOP can talk about “under-the-dome” strategies being their best bet because no one in their base is listening. It’s become the party of “get away with whatever you can”.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Quite true, Carol. It’s hard to see any serious governing attempts by the Republicans: all efforts appear to be to hold on to power for its own sake and pretend the country isn’t diversifying despite their best efforts to beat back changes they ultimately can’t control.

      I am concerned about how S.1 will get through the Senate. Jane Mayer pointed to some strong evidence that Manchin has been swayed by the dark money forces. Bipartisanship indeed!


      1. I thought the average Republican was pretending that the country was diversifying because the Democrats are evil and “tearing us apart!!!” so they, the Republicans, are just trying to fix everything by grabbing power in order to steer us back of the cliff. For the good of the country, of course.


    1. Hm, I think I meant they’re blaming polarization on Democrats, not diversity. Well, diversity, too, but they are definitely playing the polarization, gridlock, and partisanship as all the Democrats’/liberals’ fault.

      Liked by 1 person

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