Boosted by 8-figure donations, McConnell-aligned nonprofit raised $172 million in 2020
One Nation, the dark money group run by close allies of Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), raised more than $172 million in 2020, according to a new tax return obtained by CREW. The massive sum, which exceeds what the nonprofit raised in any prior year by more than $100 million, was bolstered by several eight-figure contributions from anonymous donors, including one who gave $33 million and one who gave $13.5 million.
One Nation has been described as one of “the primary source[s] of outside air cover for Senate Republicans” and the group increased its spending significantly during an election year that saw control of the Senate up for grabs. The nonprofit group, which is allowed to spend money to influence elections but cannot have politics as its primary activity, spent more than $195 million overall in 2020, including $77.4 million it described as being dedicated to politics.
All of One Nation’s admitted political activity consisted of contributions to the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC that like One Nation is helmed by former McConnell chief of staff Steven Law. The super PAC raised and spent more than $475 million during the 2020 election cycle.
One Nation also disclosed spending more than $97 million on “grassroots issue advocacy,” almost all of which appears to refer to the barrage of media campaigns the group paid for throughout the year. One Nation’s top two independent contractors, Main Street Media Group and Mentzer Media Services, were paid a combined $79.6 million for “media services.” Both companies were also major vendors for the Senate Leadership Fund, which paid them more than $238 million during the 2020 cycle to place ads benefiting Republican Senate candidates — including some of the same ones who benefited from One Nation’s spending — on TV, radio and other media.
According to an analysis of ad spending data by OpenSecrets, One Nation had bankrolled nearly $40 million in TV ads in at least 11 states by the beginning of September 2020. The group also spent more than $2.5 million on Facebook and Google ads in 2020.
Though One Nation’s ad spending focused on boosting the political fortunes of McConnell’s then-Senate majority by lavishing praise on Republican senators and attacking Democrats, none of the nonprofit’s 2020 ad spending was reported to the FEC. The group’s ads avoided triggering reporting requirements by framing the messages as a policy ask to the candidates’ constituents rather than direct exhortations for the election or defeat of any candidate, and by running them more than 30 days before any primary election or more than 60 days before the general election.
One Nation also appears to have injected additional funds into the political system through its grantmaking to other nonprofit organizations. In particular, One Nation reported giving $2.5 million to the American Exceptionalism Institute and $1.5 million to the Government Integrity Fund, two nonprofits that CREW has identified as part of a dark money network responsible for funnelling tens of millions in anonymous funds into American elections. The amounts that One Nation gave to the two groups exactly match contributions the American Exceptionalism Institute and the Government Integrity Fund made to a super PAC in October 2020 that backed Sen. Lindsey Graham’s (R-SC) re-election. The two contributions to the pro-Graham super PAC were made on the same day that the Senate Leadership Fund announced an “investment” in Graham’s race with a $10 million ad blitz.
The similarity between One Nation’s grants and the recipients’ super PAC contributions raises questions about whether the two dark money groups used One Nation’s funds to make the contributions. Notably, One Nation’s schedule of contributors, which discloses contribution amounts without identifying information, includes incoming contributions in the same amounts, $2.5 million and $1.5 million, also raising the possibility that the funds were simply passed through One Nation to its intended recipients. Without more information, however, such as the timing of the individual money transfers, it is difficult for outside observers to know whether the multiple matching amounts are coincidental or not.
The grant from One Nation to the American Exceptionalism Institute is not the first indication of a working relationship between the two secretly-funded organizations. As CREW previously reported, the American Exceptionalism Institute disclosed on its tax return covering May 2019 through April 2020 that it provided a $2 million “restricted” grant to One Nation that may have funded an ad campaign against then-Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA) that One Nation announced in February 2020. The ad campaign began soon after Collins said he would challenge then-Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA).
One Nation also gave $6.9 million to Unite for Colorado, a nonprofit that spent millions on ads in 2020 attacking former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D), who went on to defeat then-Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) in the state’s Senate race. News outlets noted that Unite for Colorado and One Nation, which paid for ads promoting Gardner, used the same TV-ad buying firm.
The McConnell-aligned nonprofit also gave $590,000 to Crossroads GPS, an affiliated nonprofit whose role in Republican politics One Nation has largely replaced, and $1 million to the host committee of the 2020 Republican National Convention in Charlotte, NC. One Nation’s convention contribution was previously disclosed in FEC filings by the host committee.
The donors responsible for funding the nonprofit’s politician-benefiting ad campaigns and contributions to other groups are able to remain secret because One Nation is organized under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code and is not required to disclose its donors, which is why groups like One Nation are often referred to as “dark money” groups. A handful of 2020 One Nation contributors, like Southern Company and Aflac, are publicly known, mostly due to voluntary disclosures by the donors themselves. But the lion’s share of the individuals and corporations who backed One Nation’s nearly $200 million effort to influence the American political system may never be known. At least not by the public.