(The Secret Money blog is a joint project of the Center for Investigative Reporting and National Public Radio.)
An interest group’s goal is not only to help a candidate win, but also to ingratiate itself with the politician or party, says Steve Weissman, of the Campaign Finance Institute. Even if labor unions and such groups as MoveOn.org and Planned Parenthood didn’t necessarily tip the election to Senator Obama, they dedicated a vast amount of money and resources to his cause, and now can hope that he feels indebted to them.
Let’s take a look at who racked up some chits. (Click on the links to watch the groups’ ads and read about their funding and leadership.)
1. SERVICE EMPLOYEES INTERNATIONAL UNION = $23,107,433
2. UNITED AUTO WORKERS = $4,860,571
3. MOVEON.ORG = $4,185,821
4. AFSCME = $2,312,723
5. PLANNED PARENTHOOD ACTION FUND = $2,096,495
6. ADVANCING WISCONSIN = $2,094,687
7. AMERICAN FEDERATION OF TEACHERS = $1,997,375
8. PROGRESSIVE FUTURE = $1,496,323
9. SIERRA CLUB = $1,213,068
10. HEALTH CARE FOR AMERICA NOW = $1,132,085
11. NARAL PRO-CHOICE AMERICA = $1,117,991
12. DEFENDERS OF WILDLIFE ACTION FUND = $1,021,241
1. NATIONAL RIFLE ASSOCIATION = $6,946,238
2. NATIONAL REPUBLICAN TRUST = $6,592,925
3. VETS FOR FREEDOM = $4,596,149
4. NATIONAL RIGHT TO LIFE = $4,504,422
5. LET FREEDOM RING = $3,257,939
6. AMERICAN ISSUES PROJECT = $2,878,873
7. REPUBLICAN MAJORITY CAMPAIGN = $1,851,120
8. FOCUS ON THE FAMILY ACTION = $1,332,862
9. RIGHTCHANGE.COM = $1,318,691
10. REPUBLICAN JEWISH COALITION = $1,267,002
11. COMMITTEE FOR TRUTH IN POLITICS = $1,192,510*
12. NATIONAL CAMPAIGN FUND = $1,167,810
*The total for the Committee for Truth in Politics is an estimate by the Campaign Media Analysis Group. The group argues in a pending lawsuit that it doesn’t have to report its expenditures.
The biggest spenders on the left were obviously labor unions. George Soros—who made himself a political lightning rod by bankrolling anti-Bush groups in 2004—in this cycle gave $3.5 million to Fund for America, $1 million to America Votes, about half a million to other liberal groups, and that’s all that we know of. Hollywood producer Steve Bing also spent $2.5 million on the Fund for America, and about a million more on other pro-Democratic groups.
On the right, pharmaceutical executive Fred Eshelman apparently outspent Soros, dumping $5.5 million into his anti-Obama 527, RightChange.com. Other conservative megadonors include Texas businessman Harold Simmons, who gave $2.9 million to American Issues Project, and retired physician John Templeton Jr., who gave at least $2.7 million to Let Freedom Ring.
In contrast, a few conservative political action committees were able to raise remarkable sums via strictly regulated small donations. The National Republican Trust, for example, reported spending an incredible $6.6 million on the election, despite being founded in September.
Now, shifting to congressional races ...
We set out to cover Senate races, figuring that several contests could be pivotal to the chamber’s makeup next year, while the House was clearly destined to become more Democratic. Outside groups saw it that way too, and piled into Senate contests as the election drew near. Weissman says independent groups focused more on congressional races than in 2004. In some of the closest contests, outside groups with huge warchests had the potential to make a significant difference, he says.
And speaking of collecting chits, the pharmaceutical industry, under the guise of America’s Agenda: Health Care for Kids, went so far as to spend millions on incumbents of both parties—many of them in completely safe seats. Surely a good way to make friends in Congress.
A popular strategy on the left was funneling union money through independent 527s to produce attack ads. Unions produced their own ads, but they also provided almost all the funding for Patriot Majority to blitz key Senate races. Union money flowed to Citizens for Strength and Security, Majority Action, Campaign Money Watch—all of them 527s that report their contributions.
On the right, this election cycle saw the creation of several new 501(c)(4) nonprofits, which don’t have to disclose their donors, focusing on congressional races. High-powered examples include the Employee Freedom Action Committee and American Future Fund, as well as Coloradans for Economic Growth and American Energy Alliance. Freedom’s Watch also fits the bill, though we know it’s bankrolled by casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. Of course, Americans for Job Security has been doing this for years, and appears to be unfazed by a complaint to the Internal Revenue Service that it’s violating its tax status.
Weissman, in a recent report on independent groups, points to the increasing popularity of 501(c)(4) advocacy groups and 501(c)(6) trade associations on the right and the left as a major trend of this election season.
“The impact,” he tells us, “is that there’s more ads out there that you don’t quite know who’s behind them.”
That’s why we started the Secret Money Project, to help shed some light on the groups trying to influence your vote. We hope it’s proved enlightening.