In the days and weeks leading up to election day, dark money groups pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into key Oklahoma legislative races, with the vast majority of the money helping Republican candidates.
An Oklahoma Watch review of Ethic Commission campaign filings showed organizations that aren’t required to disclose their donors or release detailed information about their leaders spent nearly $1 million trying to influence races throughout the state.
The approximately $961,400 spent by these groups between the Aug. 25 runoff elections and the Nov. 3 general election came in addition to the $11.1 million candidates spent this cycle on the 101 House seats and 24 Senate seats up for election, according to Ethics Commission reports. Another $8 million was spent on state question campaigns.
There are two types of dark money: independent expenditures from organizations that aren’t required to disclose their donors; and political action committees that accept money from named groups whose funding sources are undisclosed.
In both cases, these groups can raise unlimited amounts of money to support or oppose candidates so long as the spending is made without coordinating with a candidate. The money is often spent on advertising or mailers.
Though legal, dark money groups have drawn scrutiny due to their lack of transparency and common tactics of mounting untruthful attacks or messages that can’t be tied to a candidate or single person.
Oklahoma Watch identified eight groups that spent money between the runoff and the general election. Their efforts overwhelmingly went toward helping Republicans with 85% of the $961,000 going toward efforts to support GOP candidates or oppose Democrats.
Where the Money Went?
Of the $961,400, more than two-thirds went to just four races:
- The Senate 35 contest that Democrat Jo Dossett, of Tulsa, won over Republican Cheryl Baber.
- The Senate District 9 contest that incumbent Sen. Dewayne Pemberton, R-Muskogee, won over Democrat Jack Reavis.
- The Senate District 39 contest that incumbent Sen. Dave Rader, R-Tulsa, won over Democrat Shawna Mott-Wright.
- The House District 83 contest that Republican Eric Roberts won over incumbent Rep. Chelsey Branham, D-Edmond.
- The House District 93 contest that incumbent Rep. Mickey Dollens, D-Oklahoma City, won over Republican Mike Christian.
In each race, the majority of the dark money went towards efforts helping the Republican or opposing the Democrat. A dark money group that previously caught the ire of the Oklahoma Democratic Party led the groups in spending.
The Oklahoma MAGA Coalition spent $292,950, with all the money going towards supporting Republicans or opposing Democrats in two Tulsa-area races: the Senate District 35 race won by Dossett, a Democrat, and the House District 83 race won by Roberts, a Republican.
The group spent $90,450 on television or direct mail advertisements directly opposing Dossett, $80,100 combined on mailers opposing Dossett and Branham, the Democrat in the House District 83 race, and $40,800 on mailers that supported Baber, the Republican in the Senate District 35 race.
The amount, most of which came in during the final two weeks of the race, is a staggering sum for Oklahoma’s legislative races that routinely cost candidates tens of thousands of dollars to run.
In the House District 83 race, for instance, the most recent campaign finance reports show that the two candidates, who unlike independent expenditure groups are subject to campaign contribution limits, spent a combined $89,173.
Both races were won by close margins. Despite being outspent through independent expenditure groups and by her opponent by a more than two-to-one margin, Dossett won with a 647-vote margin, or 50.9% of the vote.
Branham lost her re-election bid by a 769-vote margin and received 49.1% of the vote.
Who is Spending the Money and What Do We Know About Them?
There is little public information on the Oklahoma MAGA Coalition or its funders.
The group’s independent expenditure filings show that James Tackett, a Broken Arrow political operative, is the group’s filing agent. It also lists an Oklahoma City address and a 918-area code phone number, but calls to the number by Oklahoma Watch were not returned.
The Frontier reported earlier this year that Tackett runs a nonprofit that helped fund a pair of federal Super PACs, Make Oklahoma Great Again PAC and Oklahomans for Truth, Unity, Markets, & Prosperity (TRUMP) PAC, that supported Republicans during the primaries.
Alicia Andrews, the head of the Oklahoma Democratic Party, called for an investigation into the group in early October when she claimed it failed to register with the state before it began spending.
The Oklahoman reported that mailers sent out on Branham and Dossett tried to tie them with antifa, a term President Trump has used to refer to leftists militants. The term is short for anti-fascist, but antifa has no centralized structure or leader.
Another dark money group with a mysterious background that spent heavily in the state was the Advance Oklahoma PAC.
The group first registered as a federal PAC with the Federal Election Commission on Sept. 16. The filing lists John Jude as the group’s treasurer and lists a suite in Oklahoma City’s 101 Park Avenue as its address.
No phone number is included on the FEC filing. But the phone number attached to its independent expenditure reports submitted with the Ethics Commission includes the same number as the Advance Oklahoma Fund, a PAC that spent more than $250,000 in independent expenditure on primary and runoff races earlier this year.
Like the Advance Oklahoma Fund, Advance Oklahoma PAC is funded almost entirely by a group, also with an opaque background. The group, called A Public Voice, contributed $290,000 to the Advance Oklahoma Fund and $50,000 to Advance Oklahoma PAC this year.
FEC filings show A Public Voice is linked to a McLean, Va., address. IRS tax records, however, show A Public Voice Inc. is registered as a nonprofit and is based in Thornville, Ohio.
Americans United For Values, a federal PAC that also spent heavily in Oklahoma this year, also has ties to A Public Voice.
The PAC spent more than $132,000 on four general election races, including $44,000 in support of Roberts and Sens. Rader, Dewayne Pemberton (R-Muskogee) and Tom Dugger (R-Stillwater).
FEC records show American United for Values is registered to Brian Kinnett, who is listed as the group’s treasurer. Messages to the group were not returned.
A 2018 Politico report called Kinnett an Ohio-based conservative activist who then was a spokesman for a dark money group called American Exceptionalism Institute. IRS tax records Kinnett was the president of A Public Voice as of last year.
Other dark money groups that spent money in Oklahoma include:
- American Energy Action Fund, which spent $104,500 on 10 candidates, including seven Republicans and three Democrats. The group’s website says it is a non-partisan group that supports state legislative candidates who are committed to “clean energy technology.”
- Oklahoma Growth Alliance, a nonprofit group, that spent $81,100 on three Democratic candidates. IRS filings show it is registered to Norman resident Gregory Lockhart, who briefly served as former presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg’s director of digital communication earlier this year.
- OK Progress LLC, which spent $68,200 supporting Dossett in her race. The group, which was also active in the Democratic primaries, registered as a limited liability company in Delaware. Little other public information is available.
- The Oklahoma Federation for Children Action Fund, which spent nearly $46,600 on 11 candidates, all Republicans. The group is a PAC affiliated with the American Federation For Children, a 501(c)(4) group. The national school-choice group was once led by U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos..
- American for Prosperity, which spent nearly $36,000 on Barber’s unsuccessful Senate District 35 bid. The conservative group has largely been funded by Charles Koch and his deceased brother, David.
Dark Money’s Role in Politics
This type of political spending arose after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 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.”
Some independent expenditure groups voluntarily report their donors or are required to do so if they are an existing political action committee. That is the case for so-called leadership PACs, which are operated by Republican or Democratic legislative leaders.
The Majority Fund, a PAC for Oklahoma House of Representatives Republicans, for instance spent nearly $260,000 this election cycle on independent expenditures. While the PAC is allowed to spend money supporting candidates without restrictions, it does report its donors.
Both on the state and national level, the amount of disclosure required of these types of groups that can spend an unlimited amount of money has been a source of debate.
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, told Oklahoma Watch in 2018 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.”
Rep. Denise Brewer, D-Tulsa, was among the lawmakers who won re-election despite efforts by dark money groups to defeat her.
Advance Oklahoma PAC spent more than $38,000 either opposing her or supporting her opponent, Republican Mike Masters.
Brewer said the dark money mailers that she saw in her race, which were reviewed by Oklahoma Watch, accused her of cutting funding for school and health care while calling her “too liberal” for Oklahoma.
Brewer said the groups and their tactics poison the political process and sometimes aren’t all that effective.
“It’s just dirt, lies and ugliness,” she said. “The only good thing is that some Oklahomans still have manners so sometimes it can backfire.”