It’s the home stretch of the 2014 election season. No single theme or issue has dominated the midterms, but 2014 is on pace to be the Year of Dark Money.
Nonprofit groups, some well known (such as the US Chamber of Commerce and Americans for Prosperity, founded by the Koch brothers) and some obscure (America Inc., anyone?), have dumped huge sums of anonymous money into every competitive Senate race and many House contests. Here are five eye-opening indicators showing the rapid spread of dark money in this year’s campaign season—and why it’s going to get worse as Election Day approaches.
The $50 Million Mark
A milestone passed in late August: According to the Center for Responsive Politics, dark-money groups—nonprofits created under the 501(c)(4) and (c)(6) sections of the US tax code—had by then surpassed $50 million on elections. These groups, unlike political action committees and candidates’ campaigns, do not have to disclose their donors. So some of the key players looking to sway election results remain in the shadows. This was a new record and seven times the amount of dark money spent by the same point on House and Senate elections in 2010. And this week, dark-money spending for the 2014 cycle reached $63 million—just shy of the $69 million in dark money spent during the entire 2008 presidential election.
You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet
Every politician knows that campaign season begins in earnest after Labor Day. If recent history is any guide, there is sure to be an unprecedented last-minute blitz of dark-money spending.
As the Center for Responsive Politics’ Robert Maguire notes, almost $7 million had been dropped by Labor Day in 2010. But by the end of that election season, dark-money spending had spiked to $130 million. That trend repeated in 2012: In late August of that year, dark-money spending clocked in at $51 million. Fast forward to Election Day and the total ballooned to more than $300 million.
The chart below illustrates how secret spending could accelerate in the final weeks of an election year. This cycle is not a presidential year, but with the US Senate up for grabs, dark-money spending could surpass the record-setting amount of 2012. “If the rate of spending from previous cycles continues,” Maguire writes, “the totals could reach upwards of $730 million or—if the rate seen in the last midterm holds—edge close to $1 billion.”
The Casino King Bets Big on Red—Again
Sheldon Adelson, the 81-year-old casino mogul who runs the Las Vegas Sands Corporation, is one of the biggest individual political donors in American history. In 2012, he doled out nearly $150 million to candidates, PACs, super-PACs, and dark-money nonprofits. His largesse propped up former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s wounded presidential campaign during the primaries, and Adelson later gave morethan any other donor to the super-PAC backing GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
Despite a win-loss record in 2012 that would make a rookie craps player blush, Adelson is back at it in 2014. As the Daily Beast’s Peter Stone reported, Adelson “is poised to donate close to $100 million this election cycle, with much of that total coming in untraceable ‘dark money’ to conservative groups.” Then again, if you’re worth $38 billion, as Adelson is, what’s another nine-figure spending spree to put your friends and allies in power?