'Dark money' groups have poured billions into federal elections … – Center for Responsive Politics

Dark money” groups have poured billions of dollars into influencing federal elections since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. FEC decision on Jan. 21, 2010, as elections become increasingly expensive and less transparent.
Outside spending by groups with varying levels of disclosure has proliferated since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision rolled back restrictions on corporate political speech. Building on momentum around Citizens United, the Supreme Court’s SpeechNow.org v. FEC ruling months later effectively paved the way for super PACs — ushering in an era of groups accepting massive donations and spending practically unlimited sums so long as they don’t coordinate with candidates or political parties. 
Outside spending to influence federal elections has since topped $9 billion, a new OpenSecrets analysis found. More than $2.6 billion of that comes from unknown sources, with secretly-funded nonprofits accounting for over $1 billion of the outside spending reported to the Federal Election Commission since the 2010 cycle.
While super PACs are required to disclose donors, the ultimate source of those funds can be concealed behind contributions from shell companies or dark money groups. Dark money groups and shell companies steered an additional $1.6 billion into contributions to federal political committees like super PACs since the 2010 cycle. 
At least $3 out of every $10 in outside spending reported to the FEC since Citizens United can be traced to dark money groups. 
Dark money groups are increasingly routing funds through contributions to super PACs or into activities that do not trigger disclosure rather than reporting spending to the FEC. 
Nonprofits that don’t disclose their donors reported less than $25 million in 2022 election spending to the FEC — the lowest sum since the 2010 election cycle. But dark money groups that don’t disclose donors or spending to the FEC spent countless more on ads boosting or attacking candidates without explicitly calling for their election or defeat outside of the period when those ads are required to be disclosed. 
OpenSecrets tracked more than $1.2 billion in contributions from dark money groups and shell companies reported to the FEC in the last two election cycles alone. Shell companies and nonprofit dark money groups poured more than $612 million into contributions to federal political committees during the 2022 election cycle. 
The influx of contributions from secret funders has led to an increase in spending by so-called “gray” money groups that do not fully disclose their donors. 
The cost of elections has also continued to rise dramatically overall, as contests become more contentious and divisive. More than half of the $9 billion in outside spending since 2010 was spent since the 2020 election cycle with over $2.8 billion in 2020 and about $2 billion more in 2022. 
OpenSecrets projected the total cost of state and federal midterm elections to exceed $16.7 billion during the 2022 election cycle.
Party groups dominate dark money spending
The nonprofit dark money groups that poured the most money into 2022 elections are aligned with Democratic and Republican leadership in Congress. 
Altogether, dark money groups aligned with the Republican and Democratic parties’ congressional leadership steered more than $346 million from secret donors into 2022 federal elections, OpenSecrets’ analysis found. 
One Nation, a 501(c)(4) dark money group aligned with Senate Republican leadership, poured over $145 million into ad spending and political contributions during the 2022 cycle — more than any other dark money group.
More than $71 million of One Nation’s money went to TV and online ad spending that boosted or attacked candidates without explicitly advocating for their election or defeat during the 2022 cycle, according to AdImpact data previously reported by OpenSecrets. One Nation reported none of that spending to the FEC.
Another $74 million went into political contributions to federal political committees boosting Republicans in 2022 Senate races with the vast majority steered to Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) that shares staff and offices with the dark money group. 
Senate Leadership Fund spent more money than any other outside group during the 2022 election cycle, pouring more than $245.7 million into U.S. Senate races across the country.
Majority Forward, the primary dark money group aligned with Democratic U.S. Senate leadership, poured over $102 million into boosting Democrats in 2022 federal elections. 
About $26.5 million million of Majority Forward’s spending went to TV and online ads boosting Democratic candidates without explicitly calling for their election or defeat, according to data provided to OpenSecrets by AdImpact.
The other $75.9 went to political contributions reported to the FEC during the 2022 election cycle. Senate Majority PAC, the primary super PAC aligned with Senate Democratic leadership, reported receiving over $72 million from Majority Forward as of post-general filings with the FEC. 
Majority Forward also helped fund various other Democratic groups and seed “pop-up” PACs boosting Democratic candidates in key Senate recess. The dark money group was the sole funder of 53 Peaks, a super PAC that spent about $3 million in the Republican primary for Colorado’s Senate race. That was part of a nationwide trend of Democrats meddling in Republican primaries to attack more moderate candidates or boost more extreme candidates considered easier for Democratic nominees to beat in the general election. 
House Majority Forward, a 501(c)(4) aligned with Democratic House leadership, poured $8.5 
million in ads and political contributions during the 2022 election cycle. Most of that went to House Majority PAC, the hybrid PAC aligned with Democratic House leadership that spent over $142 million boosting Democrats in 2022 midterm elections. AdImpact tracked another $13 million in TV and online ad spending bankrolled by House Majority Forward as of Nov. 4.
American Action Network, a 501(c)(4) group aligned with House Republican leadership, poured $46.5 million into federal elections during the 2022 election cycle without reporting any spending directly to the FEC. Those contributions largely went to the Congressional Leadership Fund, a hybrid PAC aligned with GOP House leadership that poured more than $227.1 million into the 2022 midterms.
American Action Network steered another $30.7 million into TV and online ads boosting or attacking candidates as of Nov. 4, according to AdImpact data provided to OpenSecrets.
Efforts to rein in dark money met with mixed results
Lawmakers marked the anniversary of the Supreme Court decision with proposals to crack down on dark money, including a Senate joint resolution to overturn Citizens United.
The prior week, Democratic Colorado Rep. Jason Crow reintroduced the End Dark Money Act that would repeal a restriction in the omnibus appropriation bill preventing the Internal Revenue Service from using its funding to clarify rules governing how much political activity 501(c)(4) nonprofit groups can engage in. 
On Monday, Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) introduced two bills that, he said, “puts a little transparency in the donor money that goes into these campaigns.” The “Corporations Are Not People” would amend the constitution to overturn Citizens United and give Congress more authority over campaign finance regulation. The Sunlight for Unaccountable Nonprofits Act — also known as the SUN Act — would require the IRS to make public who contributed more than $5,000 to politically active nonprofits.
While federal lawmakers have proposed sweeping bills to crack down on dark money in prior congressional terms, those bills have had limited success
Money-in-Politics Reporter Taylor Giorno contributed to this report.
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Anna is OpenSecrets' Editorial and Investigations Manager. She is also responsible for OpenSecrets' dark money research and researches foreign influence as a part of Foreign Lobby Watch. Anna holds degrees in political science and psychology from North Carolina State University and a J.D. from the University of the District of Columbia School of Law.
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