Political groups with names like Keep Kentucky Great and Texas Forever sound innocuous and homegrown, but are largely — and secretly — financed by prominent D.C.-based funding organizations, according to a campaign finance watchdog organization.
The nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center on Thursday filed a 50-page complaint with the Federal Election Commission against 18 of these seemingly local super PACs for allegedly violating federal law by not disclosing their affiliations, and therefore "denying voters the right to know who is spending big money to influence their vote."
Between 2017 and 2020, the 18 super PACs collectively spent more than $200 million to influence voters in competitive federal elections. And nearly all their funding came from five national groups, including the Republican Senate Leadership Fund and the Democratic Senate Majority PAC, the Campaign Legal Center found.
Super PACs can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to influence federal elections, but unlike traditional political action committees they cannot give directly to political candidates. Instead, they can use their enormous funds on advertising overtly advocating for or against candidates. Super PACs are also mandated by federal law to disclose their donors and affiliations.
The fact that the 18 super PACs in question received most of their funding from established political groups in Washington "clearly demonstrates" an affiliation that qualifies for disclosure, the Campaign Legal Center argues.
For example, the Senate Leadership Fund provided all or nearly all the funding to Peachtree PAC (Georgia), Plains PAC (Iowa and Kansas), Keep Kentucky Great, The Maine Way PAC, Faith and Power PAC (North Carolina), American Crossroads (national), DefendArizona and Mountain Families PAC (West Virginia) in the 2018 or 2020 elections. Similarly, the Senate Majority PAC provided all or the significant majority of the funding for Sunflower State PAC (Kansas), Carolina Blue (North Carolina), Texas Forever, Highway 31 (Alabama) and Red and Gold (Arizona) during those same elections.
In both instances, the super PACs spent millions on congressional elections in key states without disclosing their affiliations to the major fundraising arms of Republican and Democratic leadership in Congress.
A number of the political groups named in the complaint are also considered "pop-up" super PACs because they were created in the final weeks of an election to spend big on one or a handful of congressional races. These super PACs often "strategically timed their spending such that the public did not learn the true source of the mystery group's communications until after the election," the complaint says.
"Senior leaders of both parties have been steering money from wealthy special interests to front groups specifically designed to trick voters," said Adav Noti, the nonprofit's senior director of trial litigation and chief of staff. "Voters have a right to know when big money is flowing into their elections from D.C.-based groups hiding their agendas and funding behind fake names."
The Campaign Legal Center hopes their complaint into the super PACs' misconduct prompts "swift investigation and a firm crackdown by the FEC."
The Fulcrum has reached out to all 18 super PACs named in the complaint. Highway 31 offered no comment and others have yet to respond. The Fulcrum will update this article as necessary.
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The Institute for Political Innovation is helping to debunk myths about American politics. It may be easy to point fingers at politicians, but the truth is that Senators and Representatives are often prisoners of a dysfunctional system. They have no choice but lockstep allegiance to their side, thanks to an outdated and toxic rule within the politics industry: the party primary.
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Tied to your party's platform. Tied to your party's primary voters. Tied to your party's donors. Tied to your party's leaders. And, of course, tied to your consultants so you can get re-elected.
Our politicians come with a lot of strings attached. Even the most fervent good-governance advocates, such as Stacey Abrams, fall short of acknowledging that even with full voter participation, our system binds and biases politicians from being truly free to represent their constituents.
Closed primaries, for instance, bind politicians to prioritize their partisan primary voters above all other voices. The typical U.S. House member has to be especially attentive to this audience because every two years their job is in the hands of these ideologically extreme individuals. Good-governance advocates could champion open primaries and/or independent redistricting commissions as a means to increase the "value" of votes from the general electorate. However, such reforms would diminish the power of the two major parties and not even people like Abrams dare cross their party's influence.
Seemingly unlimited influence from major donors similarly binds politicians. Money is even more powerful than votes in our current democracy, as pointed out by Katherine Gehl of the Institute for Political Innovation. Once a politician locks up enough votes to get through their primary and the general, there's no incentive to push for more votes. More money, on the other hand, is always useful because those dollars can be shared with other party members — helping make you a kingmaker and, thereby, move you up the party ranks. So if a donor wants a politician or their party to go in a certain direction, the odds are they'll find a way to pivot in that direction.
Ultra vires partisan structures within Congress and our state legislatures similarly bind politicians. The decision to grant partisan leaders power over things like committee assignments means politicians are rewarded for being good party soldiers.
Finally, the normalization of career politicians — endlessly seeking another term — means politicians are beholden to their consultants. They pollsters, social media planners, etc. make sure politicians never get too close to going against the grain. These creatures of the partisan industrial complex help everything stay within the party-approved lines.
All of these strings have left the American people with puppets for politicians at a time when we need public servants. All of the incentives encourage politicians to become captured, so we need a generation of public servants with enough of a moral compass to step up, serve, then step aside. These no-strings-attached public servants can pass legislation that's costly in the short run to create a better future. These uncaptured public servants can shun special interests and focus first on what's best for their constituents. These short-term politicians can stop contributing to the partisan industrial complex and actually spend their terms governing, rather than dialing for dollars.
It's a worthy aspiration to make it as easy as possible for people to vote. But so long as money is more valuable than votes and primary votes are more valuable than "normal" votes, full participation would be a pyrrhic victory.
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More than 100 Republicans, including former federal and state officials, are prepared to launch a new political party if the GOP fails to make a series of unspecified changes, according to a report in The New York Times.
Whether such a new party comes to fruition, it's worth examining the changes needed to ensure the viability of a new force in American politics. After all, others have tried to end the two-party duopoly but rarely do they play more than the role of spoiler.
The 2019 Hidden Common Ground report produced by Public Agenda, USA Today and Ipsos found that 65 percent of Americans agree it should be easier for third-party and independent candidates to run for office, giving voters more than two choices. And in last year's report, 80 percent of respondents agreed that "Traditional parties and politicians don't care about people like me."
Voters had more options than ever before in 2018. According to Unite America, which supports nonpartisan reforms and candidates willing to work across the aisle, a record 431 independents ran for state legislative seats, governor or Congress in 2018, collectively earning more votes than independent candidates in previous cycles. However, only 14 of them won their races.
"The largest barrier facing new competition in America is not structural, it's psychological: a belief that an alternative can be viable and a new identity to align around," said Nick Troiano, executive director of Unite America (which has provided financial support for The Fulcrum). "Yes, we need ranked-choice voting to eliminate the spoiler effect. Yes, we need fair ballot access and debate rules. However, those things are necessary but not sufficient. What any third party really needs is a brand and a constituency that is powerful enough to transcend the tribalism on both the left and the right in order to win elections."
For disaffected Republicans, the appearance of big names in a new party might be enough to galvanize meaningful support. Miles Taylor, who served in the Department of Homeland Security under Donald Trump and authored an op-ed and book highly critical of that administration, is one of the organizers of the potential new party, according to the Times. Reuters has identified a number of other participants, including former members of Congress and two former governors (Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania and Christine Toddy Whitman of New Jersey).
But that may not be enough to give a new party the standing to win elections.
One structural change would be to allow more candidates into debates. Writing last fall about the presidential debate system, Christina Tobin of the Free and Equal Elections Foundation and Eli Beckerman of Open the Debates argued that the system is designed to prevent candidates outside the Democratic and Republican parties from competing.
"At a time when voters are thirsting for more choices, it is absurd to keep Libertarian nominee Jo Jorgensen and Green nominee Howie Hawkins off the stage," they wrote. "Objectively speaking, there are four tickets on the ballots in enough states to win the election, and yet the debate commission has decided to appoint itself as gatekeeper standing between voters and their choices — and assuring just two of those tickets have a shot."
Unite America's post-election report on the candidates it supported in 2018 identified 10 other structural reforms that would allow third-party and independent candidates to compete with the major parties' nominees:
- In addition to more debate access, independents would stand a great chance at the national level if the Electoral College were replaced by a national popular vote.
- Use of ranked-choice voting could end the argument that independents serve only as "spoiler" candidates.
- Moving to multimember districts with proportional representation would ensure independents have their voices heard in legislative bodies.
- Top-two primaries or top-four RCV primaries would give more candidates an opportunity to earn a spot in a two-person general election, rather than appearing down-ballot as a third candidate.
- Nonpartisan ballots would create a more level playing field, because voters would not have preconceived notions based on political labels included on ballots. All candidates would have to spend resources to explain their position, rather than relying on partisan identification.
- While straight-party voting speeds up the process for voters, it hurts independents by allowing someone to vote for all candidates of one party across all races with one action rather than considering them race by race.
- Ballot access requirements vary by state and in some places can be prohibitively expensive and time-consuming. Easing the rulings to get on the ballot would level the playing field for third-party and independent candidates who lack the resources possessed by the two major parties.
- Similarly, independents and third-party candidates face fundraising disparities when compared to their Democratic and Republican opponents, who can rely on their parties for significant financial support.
- Many states have "sore loser" laws, which prevent candidates from running in a general election as an independent after losing a primary. While the party base may not choose certain candidates, those people may have significant support among other voters.
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