Political spending by secretive groups that are allowed to hide their donors have already spent what is likely a record amount this year to influence Oklahoma political races.
An Oklahoma Watch review of campaign finance records found so-called “dark money” groups had spent nearly $2.7 million on Oklahoma’s legislative, statewide and congressional races by the end of August.
That is more than such groups spent on the entire 2015-16 election cycle, totaling $1.4 million, and the 2013-14 cycle, totaling $1.9 million. This year’s total through August is expected to climb as the campaign heats up in the final stretch before the Nov. 6 general election.
Oklahoma’s Biggest ‘Dark Money’ Players
The outside spending comes from either nonprofit organizations that aren’t required to disclose their donors or political action committees that accept money from named groups whose sources of funding aren’t disclosed.
In both cases, these groups can raise unlimited amounts of money to support or oppose candidates as long as the spending is made without coordinating with the candidate. The money is often spent on advertising or mailers.
This type of political spending arose after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in early 2010, which held that the First Amendment prohibited governments from restricting independent expenditures by companies, nonprofits and labor unions to support or oppose candidates. The amount of that spending rose sharply in national races in 2012 but didn’t see big gains in state races until 2014.
Some organizations, such as the Arizona-based Goldwater Institute, say anonymous political spending by independent groups is allowed by the First Amendment rights to free speech. A 2015 report by the institute said disclosure mandates in some states “have diluted political dialogue, invited harassment and retaliation against speakers, and chilled speech and association.”
Advocates of more disclosure say the type and amounts of secretive spending are a “threat” to democracy.
Daniel Newman, president of MapLight, a California-based nonprofit that seeks to reveal the influence of money in politics, said this type of spending is alarming because it allows outside forces to sway the electorate by spreading potentially misleading messages without accountability.
“It’s a concern because it’s something we are increasingly seeing,” Newman said. “Our democracy is based on a free exchange of ideas, but when voters don’t know the source of these ads, they can’t truly evaluate the message and what is being said.”
Spending Picks Up
The rise in dark-money spending in Oklahoma could stem from an increased interest in political races this year. There were high-profile primary elections for top state positions, such as governor and attorney general, as well as the largest legislative candidate field in state history.
But a recent report suggests the trend also reflects a national expansion of dark-money spending.
The study by the Wesleyan Media Project and the Center for Responsive Politics found that dark money spending, as of July 29, was up in volume and percentage of ads run by outside groups in congressional races when compared with the 2014 mid-term elections.
The study also found that of the nearly 243,016 U.S. House or Senate TV ads that have run this election cycle, more than half were from groups that don’t disclose their donors.
Anna Massoglia, a researcher at the Center for Responsive Politics, said many buyers of these ads don’t even report their spending to the Federal Election Commission, whereas candidates and traditional political action committees must report.
The buyers avoid disclosure by running “electioneering communications” – ads that can support or oppose a specific candidate without explicitly calling for their election or defeat – within 60 days of the general election or 30 days of a primary election.
At least one case occurred in Oklahoma when a dark money group, Foundation for Economic Prosperity, ran ads attacking Democratic gubernatorial candidate Drew Edmonson the day after Kevin Stitt beat Mick Cornett in the GOP gubernatorial runoff.
That group hasn’t reported the spending with the FEC or the Oklahoma Ethics Commission. But Federal Communication Commission records show that the group booked $190,000 worth of ads in the Oklahoma City and Tulsa markets for airing shortly after the Aug. 28 runoff.
Massoglia said there is little data on how active dark-money groups have been this year in state-level races. But in general the groups remain a major player in politics and are becoming nearly as “efficient” in spending as candidate committees, she said.
Massoglia added that it’s likely dark-money spending on congressional races and state-level politics will accelerate in the coming weeks.
“I think as you move closer to Election Day, spending will pick up,” she said.
Where the Money Comes From
In Oklahoma’s primary and runoff elections, dark-money groups were active in the state’s legislative, statewide and congressional races.
Most of that money was spent on the attorney general race in which incumbent Mike Hunter beat challenger Gentner Drummond by fewer than 300 votes.
Each candidate received hundreds of thousands of dollars in support from groups that don’t disclose all or some of their donors.
Hunter’s biggest outside supporter was a newly created PAC called Oklahomans for Constitutional Integrity, which spent about $578,000 on voter calls and media production and ad buys supporting him. It sole contributor was the Republican Attorney Generals Association, a so-called 527 nonprofit that has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from businesses and other organizations, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, that do not disclose their donors.
Hunter also received about $42,000 in support through independent expenditures paid by the Oklahoma State Medical Association, a 501(c)(6) trade group that also doesn’t disclose its donors.
Drummond, meanwhile, received $285,000 in support from the American Future Fund, recently identified as one of the 15 largest dark money groups in America by a nonprofit advocacy organization called Issue One, which examines dark-money spending.
Other big dark-money players in Oklahoma races this year included Foundation for Economic Prosperity, which spent $438,872 supporting Cornett’s unsuccessful gubernatorial bid, in addition to running the ad attacking Edmonson after the runoff; American Wind Action, a so-called social welfare, or 501(c)(4), nonprofit that spent about $200,000 on legislative races, and Catalyst Oklahoma, Inc., a 501(c)(4) group that spent about $168,750 on races for the Legislature, superintendent of public instruction and labor commissioner.
Details on Biggest Dark-Money Players in Oklahoma
How Money Is Spent
The bulk of dark-money spending on Oklahoma’s races so far this election cycle has gone toward TV, radio or print media buys. That totals about half of the $2.5 million spent.
But dark-money groups have also spent heavily on canvassing or voter calls ($150,0223), direct mail ($133,880) and digital media ($327,647), campaign finance records show.
Massoglia said dark-money groups are increasingly mirroring the way candidate committees spend money, with a shift toward direct-to-voter marketing and digital ads.
“I think they are evolving,” she said. “We are seeing not only TV ads, but also a lot of digital spending that we can see through Facebook’s (new political advertisement) search, Twitter and other areas.”
One group with a deep web presence in Oklahoma races was the Conservative Alliance PAC, which is being sued by lawmakers in Ohio who allege the secretive group ran misleading and inaccurate ads there.
In addition to spending on direct-mail flyers sent to voters days before the election, the group created a Facebook page and a registered website domains targeting specific lawmakers.
The websites have been taken down, but an archived version of one site, registered as wrongprioritiesok.com, was made solely to attack Rep. George Faught, R-Muskogee, one of the six incumbent lawmakers to lose after August’s runoff races.
Newman, of MapLight, agreed with Massoglia that dark-money groups and traditional candidate committees are spending in similar ways. Although the law bars independent expenditure groups from coordinating with candidates, the two frequently share the same political consultants and advertising firms, Newman said.
The difference is that dark-money groups aren’t as accountable as candidate committees, he said.
“Overwhelmingly they will run negative ads,” he said. “They can tear down candidates with lies and (the candidates being targeted) can’t even defend themselves.”
Since the landmark Citizens United decision, Congress has declined to take up several proposals that would rein in dark-money spending.
But some states have tried to regulate the spending on their own.
In 2015, Montana lawmakers passed a law that required groups that spent money on political advocacy within 60 days of an election to disclose their donors.
More recently, a citizen-led initiative in Arizona sought a ballot measure that would ban the spending of dark money in the state. The Arizona Supreme Court rejected the state question after it found thousands of signatures on the petition were invalid.
In Oklahoma, no legislation has been filed proposing to regulate dark-money spending in campaigns.
Newman said he believes that as dark money becomes even more prevalent, Congress or states will be more motivated to act.
“I would even think lawmakers will come on board since many of them are being targeted by dark money,” he said. “Or, you will see citizens get organized as people say, ‘Enough is enough’ and that it’s time to make this transparent.”