Democrats Hate All “Dark Money,” Except the Millions They Raise

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Sept. 3 2014 5:01 AM

The Dark Arts

When Democrats aren’t complaining about the rise of “dark money” in this year’s election, they are raising it themselves.

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Patriot Majority USA has also collected seven-figure sums from at least two labor unions: $1.14 million from the Service Employees International Union, including $280,000 from the SEIU’s state council in Pennsylvania, and $1 million from the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. These large labor union contributions were first reported by the Huffington Post.

In all, federal records show that labor unions have donated at least $2.5 million to Patriot Majority USA since January 2011.

Craig Varoga, the president of Patriot Majority USA, declined to answer specific questions from the Center for Public Integrity, but ahead of the 2012 election, he issued a stark admonition in a column published in the trade magazine Campaigns & Elections about the post-Citizens United world. “It does not matter whether any of us agree or disagree with current campaign finance laws, or court interpretations and FEC rulings on these laws,” Varoga wrote. “This brave new world is here.” Earlier this year, he reiterated to the New York Times that his group would not “unilaterally disarm.”

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And as to the issue of donor disclosure? In 2012, Varoga told the Huffington Post that the funders of his organization would not be “particularly surprising,” but, nevertheless, they would not be revealed.

Varoga himself is a veteran political strategist and longtime ally of Reid, the Senate’s top Democrat. During the early 1990s, Varoga served as Reid’s communications director, and in 2010, he led an independent group that helped Reid win re-election. He’s also worked on the presidential campaigns of Democrats Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and John Kerry, among others.

Patriot Majority USA’s other directors, according to tax documents, include political consultant Joe Householder, who once worked as Hillary Clinton’s communications director in the Senate, and Bill Burke, the former head of the Foundation for the Future, a Democratic-aligned group that was active in redistricting fights.

Casey Mann, executive director of the North Carolina Democratic Party, understands that her party faces a dilemma over dark money. On the one hand, Mann says it is “unfortunate” that liberal groups like Patriot Majority USA have entered the fray to help the state’s incumbent Democratic senator, Kay Hagan, “even if it is a reaction to the conservative dark money groups.” On the other, she says she is “grateful for their actions,” including Patriot Majority USA’s $1.7 million TV ad blitz slamming Republican candidate Thom Tillis. “These are the rules that are set before us,” she continued. “You have to actually win first … to get the kind of policies you want to see.”

Mike Brown, the chairman of the Benton County Democratic Party in Arkansas, agrees. There, Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor is locked in a close race with Cotton, his Republican challenger. “You lay out rules about what’s fair in a fight,” he said. “But if the other side starts doing it, you have to answer tit for tat.”

Nevertheless, both the Pryor and Hagan campaigns have repeatedly criticized the Koch brothers’ nonprofits for spending big in their Senate races. “We can’t let our Democratic Senate be bought,” pleaded one recent fundraising email from the Pryor campaign. “I would prefer our elections Koch-free,” wrote Hagan in a recent campaign email of her own. “You can’t buy a democracy. But Koch-backed groups are sure giving it a try.”

Ann Clemmer, a former Republican state lawmaker who now teaches political science at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, says it’s “pretty disingenuous for Democrats to cry foul” about Republicans’ big-money allies “when there’s plenty of it on their side as well.” Nevertheless, she understands Democrats’ desire to fight back.

“You can’t let one side do it and not answer,” she said. “You don’t want to let charges go unanswered.”

This story was published by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C.

Michael Beckel is a politics reporter for the Center for Public Integrity, where his focus is super PACs and the influence of money on elections.

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