Many Americans hoped for a new era in US politics when Congress passed the bipartisan McCain-Feingold bill on campaign finance reform in 2002. The Campaign Reform Act set limits on individual contributions as well as on those made by political action committees (PACs), and required that all contributions in federal elections be reported to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and made available for public scrutiny.
Many US citizens feared even back then that big money would ultimately find a way to subvert McCain-Feingold and again insert itself into the electoral process. After 2010, when the Supreme Court ruled in the Citizens United case that money was a form of free speech that could not be limited in politics, the floodgates were indeed opened – with huge “independent expenditures” from both the left and right, by corporations and interest groups supporting or opposing campaigns.
The Supreme Court held that a clause of the First Amendment, the free speech clause, prohibits the US government from putting a stop to independent expenditures for political campaigns by corporations, including non-profit corporations, labour unions, and other associations. Consequentially, groups that represented banks, big pharma, women’s rights, the gun lobby and others, spent millions advancing their interests. The funds they poured into campaigns – “dark money expenditures” – were considered private and no longer subject to FEC reporting or public disclosure.
But it isn't only large American corporations that hire lobbyists and public relations firms to push through their agendas. Foreign governments have, for many years, resorted to these tactics to further their political and economic interests in Washington.
Supporters of Israel, for instance, have a long history of bundling large contributions to support or oppose candidates. Before and after McCain-Feingold, scores of pro-Israel PACs would routinely bundle donations, raising millions of dollars every election cycle. Though intimidating, the funds they raised were duly reported to the FEC and were available to the public.
This year is different. Fearful that Israel is losing support among Democrats, especially progressive Democrats, elements of the special interest community have developed a number of “dark money” entities. Their express purpose is to defeat “progressive Democrats”, even if they haven’t yet been outspoken critics of Israeli government policies. Much of the expenditures of this community have not been in support of candidates, but against those whom they oppose. And the huge advertising campaigns they have waged have not focused on Israel, but instead on tearing down the reputations of those they hope to defeat.
At least three such groups were created in the past year and have managed to raise and spend large amounts of money in a short period of time.
This year, millions have been spent to smear and defeat candidates in Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Texas, Maryland, and now Michigan and Missouri. Despite the large amount of money spent, this effort operated without much notice – until recently, when Donna Edwards, a former Maryland congresswoman running to regain her seat was subjected to a $6 million negative advertising blitz attempting to discredit her years of public service. As has been the case in other races, the total amount expended by pro-Israel groups exceeded the amount raised by her campaign.
A few investigative reporters have uncovered the sources of some funds, often a handful of billionaires – from some energy companies, investment firms and high-tech industries. Many are Republican donors.
This past week’s primaries featured four such contests, three in Michigan and one in Missouri. In Michigan, a Palestinian-American incumbent was targeted by more than $2m; a Jewish-American incumbent faced a barrage of negative advertising funded by about $4.3m, apparently not being pro-Israel enough; and an Indian-American candidate was targeted by over $4.2m. In Missouri, an African-American congresswoman, who rose to national prominence during the racial justice protests in Ferguson, and in 2020 unseated a long-standing pro-Israel member of Congress, was confronted with millions of dollars in negative advertising seeking to discredit her service to her district.
When the results were tabulated, dark money was defeated in three of these contests – only succeeding in defeating the Jewish-American incumbent in Michigan. That’s what dark money can do.
Thus far, in 2022, the pro-Israel “dark money” groups and PACs have spent $30m with a mixed win-loss record. But the real losers go beyond the candidates themselves – both those who have lost and the winners whose reputations have been tarnished.
It needs to be remembered that groups tied to a number of interests also use dark money to attempt to influence elections in the US. Nonetheless, in the larger scheme, at stake is the integrity of the American political process. The outcome of an election should not be determined by the highest bidders, who spend unlimited amounts to destroy an opponent. Also at risk, and equally important, is the ability of candidates to freely debate critical issues without fear of having their political careers ended by a few big-money donors willing to ruin their reputations if they dare to speak out.