People For the American Way

In Kentucky McConnell Campaign Benefits Big From Dark Money

With the Kentucky Senate race a major point of focus in the upcoming midterms, and potentially determining control of the Senate, the issue of big money in politics has been repeatedly raised in debates and interviews by Sen. Mitch McConnell’s challenger, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes. McConnell, for his part, has defended Citizens United v FEC and the influence of big money in politics.

It’s not hard to see why. A recent article by the Center for Public Integrity details the enormous amount of cash that has been spent in support of Sen. McConnell’s reelection campaign by outside “dark money” groups. One group in particular, the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition, has spent $14 million since the beginning of 2013. Groups like the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition are granted tax-exempt status by the IRS as “social welfare organizations” and are not required to disclose their donors.

According to The Center for Public Integrity:

Despite having effectively no physical presence, the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition now ranks among the largest social welfare nonprofits in Kentucky — bringing in more money, according to Internal Revenue Service records, than some of Kentucky’s more high-profile nonprofits, such as the Kentucky School Boards Association and the Kentucky Derby Festival, the group behind two weeks’ worth of events surrounding the Kentucky Derby.

Of the more than 12,000 ads put on air by the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition, every single one of them specifically mentions either McConnell or Grimes. About half, 53 percent, expressed approval of Sen. McConnell while the remainder criticized Grimes. These massive ad buys have all occurred since early 2013. Prior to then the organization was almost inactive. Incorporated in 2008, during its first five years the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition never reported more than $50,000 in annual receipts. 

The article continues:

When it applied for tax-exempt status as a social welfare nonprofit, the group told the IRS that it did not have any plans to spend any money “attempting to influence” the election of any political candidates. It added that it would be “operated exclusively for public and social welfare purposes.”

The McConnell campaign has refused to acknowledge or discuss the impact of the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition until recently, after a mid-October debate, when a campaign staff member responded to a question about how Sen. McConnell would be doing without the support from the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition, replying “We’d be winning just like we are right now.” Recent polling shows McConnell and Grimes locked in a close race, with McConnell leading by just a few percentage points.

Without reforming the way elections are financed, shadowy dark money groups like the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition will continue to funnel millions of dollars into elections on the local, state and federal level. While the Supreme Court may have ruled that money is speech, most Americans don’t buy it. A majority of the public thinks there is too much money in politics and three in four people support a Constitutional amendment to overturn Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United v FEC. Whether this overwhelming support for reform translates to progressive candidates getting elected next week remains yet to be seen.

One thing, however, is clear. Mitch McConnell doesn’t just favor the current system of campaign finance: he benefits from it.