February 10, 2013

Op-Ed: Dark Money Groups Have Ulterior Motives for Opposing Chuck Hagel Nomination

By Melanie Sloan

PentagonOp-ed originally appeared in the Journal Star, February 10, 2013

Dark money groups fresh off an unprecedented binge of election spending are now aggressively working to defeat President Barack Obama’s nomination of former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) to be secretary of defense.

Some of those trying to bulldoze Sen. Hagel’s nomination are working overtime to conceal their motives. For instance, in efforts to stoke liberal opposition, Republicans who supported presidential candidate Mitt Romney -- despite his hardline positions against gay rights -- may well be funding the Log Cabin Republicans to run ads criticizing Sen. Hagel for anti-gay statements and positions he expressed more than a decade earlier. As it turns out, these groups are doing much more than just trying to derail Sen. Hagel’s nomination.

One of the groups taking the lead in the fight against Sen. Hagel is the American Future Fund (AFF), an Iowa-based group that spent nearly $26 million benefitting Republican candidates during the 2012 election cycle.

“Postelection we have new battle lines being drawn with the president; he kicks it off with these nominations and it made sense for us,” Nick Ryan, the founder of AFF, told The New York Times regarding the group’s decision to fight the Hagel nomination. In an effort to discredit him, AFF inaccurately has suggested Sen. Hagel violated Senate ethics rules and that he is on the board of a firm with investments in Iran.

Why does AFF, with the stated mission of promoting conservative and free market principles, have a dog in this fight? Significantly, as a 501(c)(4) social welfare organization that does not disclose its donors, AFF’s primary purpose can’t be influencing elections. But AFF, formed in the wake of the Supreme Court’s disastrous Citizens United decision, has done little more than spend millions running negative ads against Democrats.

To maintain its favorable tax status, AFF now needs to burn money on programs to offset money spent electioneering. Ads opposing Sen. Hagel’s confirmation help because they don’t count as electoral activity. This is a win-win for AFF: The campaign against Sen. Hagel shows it is doing more than just election advocacy while still advancing a political agenda.

To that end, AFF told Politico it plans to launch anti-Hagel ads online, in the Washington, D.C. market, and in key senators’ states -- an expensive proposition. “It’s a very well-funded effort,” an AFF spokesman promised. Indeed, the Sunlight Foundation, which tracks political ads, found outside groups already have spent at least $183,000 on anti-Hagel ads.

So exactly who is funding this effort, and why? The public has no idea.

Groups like AFF are funded and dominated by a small number of secret large donors. For instance, in 2010, AFF reported raising a little more than $23 million in 33 contributions. Of that, a single contribution of nearly $11 million -- almost half of all money raised -- was made by another shady non-profit, the Center to Protect Patient Rights. Notably, in the off-year of 2011, AFF reported raising far less money, nearly $2.6 million in 11 contributions, including one check for more than $1 million. It seems donors view largesse to groups like AFF as a way to influence policy from the shadows.

The Times reported Sheldon Adelson, one of the biggest donors to super PACs and 501(c)(4) groups supporting Republicans during the 2012 election cycle, is contacting Republican senators directly and urging them to oppose Sen. Hagel’s confirmation. Given that Adelson spent more than $100 million, it is a safe bet that senators will take his call.

As election law expert Richard L. Hasen pointed out last year, the real danger of unlimited money in politics is that it may “skew the legislative process” in favor of large contributors like Adelson. Members of Congress know that if they say no to megadonors, they may face an onslaught of negative campaign ads the next time they’re on the ballot. Correspondingly, assisting Adelson and those of his ilk might well persuade such contributors to support their reelection efforts by generously underwriting ads against their opponents.

The well-financed campaign against Sen. Hagel’s nomination is just one more illustration of the devastating impact of Citizens United. Until dark money groups are forced to disclose their donors, the public has no way to know who is influencing members’ votes -- or why.

Op-ed originally appeared in the Journal Star, February 10, 2013

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