#5 Dark Money Interference in US Politics Undermines Democracy

by Project Censored
Published: Last Updated on

Conservative dark money organizations opposing President Biden’s Supreme Court nomination also helped fuel conspiracy theories of election fraud after the 2020 election, as Igor Derysh reported for Salon in March 2022. Derysh summarized a recent report from the watchdog group Accountable.US, which revealed that organizations such as Judicial Crisis Network (JCN), the Federalist Society, and the 85 Fund had previously donated millions of dollars to groups involved in the January 6 Capitol riot. These same organizations, among others, were also responsible for funding vicious attack ads on Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, Biden’s Supreme Court nominee, arguing that Democrats were using Jackson as a pawn to promote a “woke agenda.”

“It should worry us all that the groups leading the fight against Biden’s historic nomination of Judge Jackson to the Supreme Court are tied to the Jan. 6 insurrection and efforts to undermine confidence in the 2020 election,” Kyle Herrig, president of Accountable.US, told Salon. “With American institutions and our democracy itself under constant attack from every direction, the importance of Judge Jackson’s swift and successful confirmation cannot be overstated.”

The influence of dark money—political spending by organizations that are not required to disclose their donors—presents a major challenge to the swift functioning of the judicial nomination and confirmation process, and the US government as a whole. In contrast to direct contributions to candidates, parties, and issue campaigns, which must be disclosed to the public, dark money contributions purposely hide donors’ names from public view. As a result, dark money deeply influences political decisions in favor of select individuals’ or groups’ agendas rather than in support of the public’s best interests.

According to a 2020 report by OpenSecrets, JCN also invested millions of dollars to help confirm Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh. Most recently, dark money groups, including JCN, were heavily involved in the 2020 Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Judge Amy Coney Barrett, donating money to politicians such as Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who were key players in advancing Judge Barrett’s confirmation. Critics called Judge Barrett’s confirmation process unusually quick, making the interference of dark money all the more unsettling.

“Those wins [by dark money organizations] often come at the expense of regular Americans, stripping away protections for minority voters, reproductive rights, the environment, public health, and workers,” Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) wrote in a February 2022 Washington Post op-ed. “And they often degrade our democracy: greenlighting gerrymandering, protecting dark money, and suppressing the vote.”

Conservative dark money groups constitute a multimillion-dollar spider web. According to Accountable.US, the organization Donors Trust, supported by the Koch network, contributed at least $20 million to several groups that challenged the validity of the 2020 election That same year, Donors Trust also gave more than $48 million to the 85 Fund, then more than $700,000 to the Federalist Society. In 2019 and 2020, the Bradley Foundation donated more than $3.5 million to groups connected to Leonard Leo, co-chairperson of the Federalist Society. Cleta Mitchell, an attorney who serves on the Bradley Foundation’s board, aided Trump’s effort to get Georgia’s Secretary of State to assist in an attempt to overturn Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 election.

The role of dark money in politics, including opposition to Biden’s Supreme Court nomination of Judge Jackson, has been a noteworthy topic in corporate media as recently as February 2022. However, coverage has focused on the political tensions erupting from Judge Jackson’s nomination and dark money influence on previous Supreme Court nominations, largely ignoring the presence of dark money backing Trump’s claims of voter fraud or supporting those implicated in the Capitol riot.

More recently, Republican and Democratic senators sparred over dark money alliances during Judge Jackson’s confirmation hearings, according to NBC News. Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) warned of “the troubling role [that] far left dark money groups” such as Demand Justice “have played in this administration’s judicial selection process.” Meanwhile, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) scoffed at Republican lawmakers’ supposed concern over dark money, given that they have long pushed to protect laws that allow donors to make major campaign donations without disclosing their identities.

In January 2022, the New York Times tracked the scale of dark money spending in the 2020 election, focusing on many new Democratic efforts to utilize dark money, in comparison to previous years when Democrats actively campaigned against the presence of dark money in politics In February 2022, Business Insider highlighted the surge in dark money donations from advocacy groups used to fight Judge Jackson’s nomination and confirmation process. Op-eds featured in both the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post covered the discussion of dark money during Judge Jackson’s confirmation hearings. A March 2022 Mother Jones report discussed JCN’s influence on conservative politics and federal judicial nominations, and how dark money discourse played out shortly after Biden nominated Judge Jackson to the Supreme Court. However, none of the articles featured in the corporate press covered dark money supporting Trump’s Big Lie, the impact such funding had on promoting and reinforcing anti-democratic ideology, or the ramifications of how such dark money spending erodes public trust in government and the election process.

Igor Derysh, “Dark-Money Groups Fighting Biden’s Supreme Court Pick Also Funded Big Lie, Capitol Riot,” Salon, March 8, 2022.

Student Researcher: Kira Levenson (University of Massachusetts Amherst)

Faculty Evaluator: Allison Butler (University of Massachusetts Amherst)