“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.
“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.