A recent tax filing by Carolina Rising, a 501(c)(4) social welfare organization, shows that in 2014 the group spent $4.7 million on ads that had one thing in common: touting the legislative accomplishments of Thom Tillis, who was then North Carolina’s speaker of the House. That year, Mr. Tillis also happened to be trying to unseat Kay Hagan, the incumbent Democratic senator.
Carolina Rising spent the money in a three-month blitz leading up to Election Day, but we may never learn where these millions came from. The partial disclosure required of 501(c)(4) outfits means that while we do know that 98.7 percent of the group’s revenue came from a single donor and that virtually every penny of it was used to further the cause of Mr. Tillis’s campaign, we don’t know who Carolina Rising’s secret benefactor was.
John Koskinen, the I.R.S. commissioner, is scheduled to testify today before the Senate Finance Committee at yet another hearing on the agency’s heightened scrutiny of certain politically active 501(c)(4) groups in 2010-12. But what we should really be paying attention to is the increasing use of dark money to influence our elections, and the rising number of groups that devote themselves to a single candidate (including several, already, in this cycle’s presidential campaign). Before the 2014 campaign, nonprofits like that didn’t exist.
This is what a post-Citizens United America means: a single donor can give unlimited money anonymously in order to influence elections, and we have to call it Constitutionally-protected free speech.
Still, groups like these are obliged to follow some basic rules: 501(c)(4) organizations are not supposed to spend a majority of their resources on political activity, a requirement that leads to impressive accounting and definitional acrobatics. More important, these groups are not supposed to function for the private benefit of an individual or a select group.
Carolina Rising appears to have broken both rules. Within five months of being formed, and just three months before the general election, Carolina Rising kicked off an onslaught of television ads applauding Mr. Tillis for his work on education and health care in North Carolina. The ads never asked viewers to vote for Mr. Tillis.
Perhaps this framing was meant to allow the group to claim that it was talking about issues, rather than supporting the candidate outright. But the firm buying the ads on behalf of Carolina Rising, Crossroads Media, repeatedly described the “issue” in its ads as some variation of being pro-Thom Tillis. In at least one contract, the stated issue was “supporting Thom Tillis, senatorial candidate for N.C. (R) - election on 11/4/14.”
Dallas Woodhouse, the Republican consultant who ran Carolina Rising, did away with any further pretense when he was interviewed live by a local news channel at the Tillis campaign’s election-night victory celebration. Sporting a Thom Tillis hat, Mr. Woodhouse, who was named executive director of the state’s Republican Party last month, was asked about his group’s spending “a whole lot of money to get this man elected.”
Mr. Woodhouse responded, “$4.7 million. We did it.”
Yet less than a year later, when it came time for Carolina Rising to report its activities to the I.R.S., it said it had not engaged in “direct or indirect political campaign activities on behalf of or in opposition to candidates for public office.”
And this is why I have little hope about winning the House back anytime soon, and I'm very worried about retaking the Senate. Republicans have billions to spend on congressional and state elections next year through these dark money groups that Democrats simply can't compete with, and the GOP will certainly continue to attack the IRS for doing its job to try to prevent these abuses.
Once the primaries for the states are settled, you can bet we'll see the full onslaught of the billions in dark money on the airwaves heading for November 2016, and I'm not at all sure if the Dems can weather the tide, or if we'll be drowned by it.
Should the GOP get full control of our government, it's over.