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Campaign Intelligence: It’s summertime . . . And the pols are trash-talking

It may be vacation season for most Americans, but not for those who are running for office in this year’s mid-term elections — or for those who want to influence the outcome of those races.

Sunlight’s Ad Hawk, a tool that helps voters identify the people and the interests behind the political advertisements bombarding their living rooms, has had a particularly full in-box this week, picking up new ads in several of this year’s key Senate races.

Crossroads GPS, part of the GOP political spending combine that told the Associated Press it plans to spend $20 million this fall in six key Senate races, has uploaded ads for two of them:

In Arkansas, where Sen. Mark Pryor is in a tight re-election battle, Crossroads has posted an ad emphasizing the two-term Democrat’s ties to President Barack Obama, who got just 37 percent of the vote in Arkansas the last time he was on the ballot.

Arkansas is one of the states where Crossroads appears to have been most active, according to ad buys compiled by Sunlight’s Political Ad Sleuth from records filed by the state’s TV stations with the Federal Communications Commission. You can see the Crossroads buys in Arkansas here.

In Colorado, home of another one of this year’s most vulnerable Democrats, Mark Udall, Crossroads is attacking the first term senator for being insufficiently supportive of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, which proponents see as a job-creator and opponents see as an environmental disaster.

Both ads deliver highly negative messages about the politicians they are targeting but because they never explicitly call for a vote against them and because they are airing well before the 60-day pre-election window when the Federal Elections Commission requires such messages to be reported, expenditures on the ads don’t have to be reported either. But enterprising watchdogs can crack open the contracts on Ad Sleuth and enter the numbers into a database that Sunlight has created. The Crossroads buys in Colorado are here.

On the other side of the environmental debate, the big-spending League of Conservation Voters has posted two new ads attacking Joni Ernst, the Republican candidate vying for an open Iowa Senate seat. Both portray Ernst as “too extreme” for the state, and one links her to GOP firebrand Sarah Palin and the conservative bankrollers Charles and David Koch.

The League of Conservation Voters’ ad buys in Iowa can be viewed here.

Airtime in Kentucky, where Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell’s reelection bid has set off a barnburner of a contest, has been a hot commodity since early 2013, Political Ad Sleuth records for the Louisville market show. Ad Hawk this week picked up two new ads in the race, one from McConnell’s Democratic opponent, Alison Lundergan Grimes, and another from the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition, a dark money group that’s backing McConnell.

Finally, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has posted an ad strongly backing Rep. Jack Kingston in the July 22 runoff for the GOP Senate nomination in Georgia. Kingston faces businessman David Perdue. Details on the Chamber’s ad buys in the Peach State are available here.

[...]


Dark money in North Carolina’s Hagan-Tillis Senate race: 4,086 ad spots at WBTV

Outside groups bought virtually all the ads that one Charlotte TV station has aired in North Carolina’s hotly contested Senate race, and nearly half of the dollars they spent haven’t been reported to the Federal Election Commission. That’s the conclus… [...]


Day after McCutcheon, FEC commissioners clash over dark money

A screenshot from a Crossroads GPS commercial against Obamacare
A screenshot from a 2013 ad by Crossroads GPS; Image credit: Youtube

The day after the Supreme Court threw aggregate contribution limits out of the window, commissioners from the nation’s campaign finance watchdog agency clashed over an enforcement matter from the 2010 elections. The issue at hand? The Federal Election Commission’s failure to investigate the political status of “dark money” republican nonprofit, Crossroads GPS.

Hours before the meeting, Vice Chair Ann Ravel — a Democrat who took an aggressive stance against dark money political contributions as head of California’s campaign finance enforcement agency — published an op-ed in the New York Times on Wednesday bluntly titled “How Not to Enforce Campaign Finance Laws. From the article:

“The Federal Election Commission is failing to enforce the nation’s campaign finance laws…The problem stems from three members who vote against pursuing investigations into potentially significant fund-raising and spending violations. In effect, cases are being swept under the rug by the very agency charged with investigating them.”

The op-ed quickly became Topic A of Thursday’s open meeting. As soon as the commissioners disposed of a routine agenda item, Republican Commissioner Caroline Hunter laid into Ravel.

“Should we investigate every 501(c)4 that makes [independent expenditures]?…you’re happy if someone is enforcing the law as you see it, not as it is written,” she declared, noting that the op-ed may confuse campaign finance lawyers about the Commission’s position.

Ravel refused to engage, saying she’d rather discuss her views with her colleagues in private.

On the columns of the New York Times, however, the rookie commissioner minced no words. She labeled the three Republican members of the FEC as the “commission’s anti-enforcement bloc” and accused them of having turned a blind eye to the overtly political nature of a 501(c)4 nonprofit group, Crossroads GPS. The group spent millions helping Republican candidates and causes in 2010 — and continued to do so in subsequent cycles. But unlike traditional political committees, Crossroads  — and many other groups modeled after it — are not required to disclose the sources of funding because they claim to be “social welfare nonprofits” for whom politics is not their primary purpose.

Four votes were needed to launch an official investigation into whether or not Crossroads broke campaign finance law but the Commissioners deadlocked on the vote. In their initial statement of reasons, Republican Commissioners concluded that “Crossroads GPS’s major purpose was not the nomination or election of a federal candidate,” but rather “issue advocacy and grassroots lobbying.”

As for the overall landscape of campaign finance in the post-McCutcheon world, the agency is still deliberating on the case’s impact. Commissioner Ellen Weintraub, a Democrat, expressed hope the decision would prompt the FEC to improve campaign disclosure. In an interview after she meeting, she told Sunlight that “the court has given us an opening to do more rule making and enhance transparency and disclosure in the system.”

Chief Justice John Roberts, in his opinion supporting overturning the aggregate limits, also emphasized the importance of real time disclosure of campaign contributions in “minimiz[ing] the potential for abuse” and noted that limits may have actually encouraged donors to give to dark money entities (like Crossroads). In the view of Sunlight, however, there remain substantial impediments to disclosure in spite of modern technology.

[...]


Group plans to sue FEC after dark money deadlock

A public interest group plans to file suit against the Federal Election Commission for failing to take action against Crossroads GPS, a conservative nonprofit group that the agency’s lawyers said should have registered as a political committee in 2010… [...]


FEC lawyers: Reason to believe Crossroads broke law

The Federal Election Commission’s professional legal staff believes that Crossroads GPS, an innovative fundraising operation that enabled veteran GOP operatives to end-around campaign finance regulations, likely violated election law, according to a l… [...]


IRS creates big stir targeting small fry


While the IRS fries the small fish, the big ones got away. Click here to see the big picture.

Updated: 3:55 p.m.

The scandal over the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative groups seeking nonprofit status has widened to a point where President Barack Obama took public notice today and a key House committee scheduled a hearing for Friday to examine the matter.

Obama’s denunciation of the tax agency’s “outrageous” behavior came following reports on an as-yet-unreleased inspector general’s investigation that found the abuses–requests for detailed records and information from tea partiers seeking IRS blessing to incorporate as social welfare organizations–started in 2011, a year earlier than the Service had previously acknowledged, and that higher ups were aware of the practice.

Sunlight’s view: IRS debacle highlights need for clearer regulations.

And other reports have surfaced alleging that a wider array of groups were singled out for the additional scrutiny.

As Sunlight noted on Friday, most of the groups drawing IRS scrutiny were small fish. Meanwhile, an array of better-funded political players, including the Crossroads GPS, co-founded by top Republican strategists, and Organizing for Action, which offered access to President Barack Obama for donors who gave or raised $500,000 or more, appear to have gotten a free pass.

So-called “social welfare” nonprofits of every ideological stripe pumped at least $300 million in funds whose donors will never be disclosed in the 2012 elections. To see who the big players were, check out Sunlight’s list on our Follow the Unlimited Money tracker.

 

[...]


IRS creates big stir targeting small fry


While the IRS fries the small fish, the big ones got away. Click here to see the big picture.

Updated: 3:55 p.m.

The scandal over the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative groups seeking nonprofit status has widened to a point where President Barack Obama took public notice today and a key House committee scheduled a hearing for Friday to examine the matter.

Obama’s denunciation of the tax agency’s “outrageous” behavior came following reports on an as-yet-unreleased inspector general’s investigation that found the abuses–requests for detailed records and information from tea partiers seeking IRS blessing to incorporate as social welfare organizations–started in 2011, a year earlier than the Service had previously acknowledged, and that higher ups were aware of the practice.

Sunlight’s view: IRS debacle highlights need for clearer regulations.

And other reports have surfaced alleging that a wider array of groups were singled out for the additional scrutiny.

As Sunlight noted on Friday, most of the groups drawing IRS scrutiny were small fish. Meanwhile, an array of better-funded political players, including the Crossroads GPS, co-founded by top Republican strategists, and Organizing for Action, which offered access to President Barack Obama for donors who gave or raised $500,000 or more, appear to have gotten a free pass.

So-called “social welfare” nonprofits of every ideological stripe pumped at least $300 million in funds whose donors will never be disclosed in the 2012 elections. To see who the big players were, check out Sunlight’s list on our Follow the Unlimited Money tracker.

 

[...]


IRS-gate: Picking on the little guys

As often happens, Washington’s big story of the moment–that the Internal Revenue Service targeted dark money groups that filed for nonprofit status if they had the words “tea party” or “patriot” in their monikers–misses the big point.

Of course the IRS should never be used for political purposes; it should apologize for giving an extra scrutiny to groups requesting non-profit status if they appeared to be Tea Party affiliates. Our question is: Why did they pick on the little guys when they’ve got so many larger, more legitimate targets for scrutiny?

The American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative organization that represents 27 groups that received the extra scrutiny, posted some of the requests for additional information its clients received. IRS workers asked for detailed information on the groups’ boards of directors, planned and previous activities, ties to political candidates, vendors and so on.

But while the feds were giving the third degree to some upstart political fundraising groups that applied for 501(c)4 nonprofit status, a huge ecosystem of big players was pumping millions into the 2012 election – using the same section of the tax code, which stipulates that must spend more than half their money on non-political activities. Take a look at the list compiled by Sunlight’s Follow the Unlimited Money tracker at the biggest spending nonprofits (note that not all of them are (c)4s–some are trade associations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Americans for Job Security). There’s not a single group with the words “tea party” in the name, and only one group, mostly funded by labor unions, has the word “patriot” in it–the Patriot Majority USA.

If the Internal Revenue Service wanted to be vigilant about groups potentially abusing their 501(c)4 status, they might have paid closer attention to Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, or shine a light on Organizing for Action, the 501(c)4 set up earlier this year by officials of President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign to maintain his mailing list and influence policy. Organizing for Action promised donors who gave or raised $500,000 access to the president.

As with the audits of individual income tax returns, 87 percent of which are directed at filers with $100,000 or less in income, the IRS has once again put more time going after the little people than the Leona Helmsleys.

[...]


Latest Dark Money Tallies: $213 million in the general election and counting, 81% on behalf of Republicans; 34 races with $1 million or more

This post was prepared in collaboration with Alexander Furnas and Amy Cesal. Back in July, Senate Republicans successfully blocked the DISCLOSE Act, which would have required all organizations spending $10,000 or more to reveal their donors. Now we un… [...]


Outside Money in the House: Six Graphs and Seven Takeaways

This post was prepared in collaboration with Alexander Furnas. All graphics by Amy Cesal. Outside money is flooding into U.S. House races, primarily from party committees, but also significantly from dark money groups and super PACs. And though Democr… [...]