Ban on Digital Ads Lifts for Georgia Runoffs, Opening “Dark Money” Floodgates

Online advertising is opening the floodgates for more money from untraceable sources to pour into the Georgia Senate runoffs as Google and Facebook lift political ad bans that went into effect after polls closed on Nov. 3.

Georgia’s Jan. 5 runoff elections will decide whether Democrats or Republicans control the Senate, pitting Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) against Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff and Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.) against Raphael Warnock.

A primary aim of the bans was to prevent the spread of misinformation about election results. But it also prevented advertisers seeking to influence the Georgia Senate runoffs from buying ads on two of the biggest online platforms.

Google ended its political ad ban on Dec. 10 and Facebook announced that it would start allowing ads exclusively in Georgia on Dec. 15, just three weeks before Georgia’s runoff elections.

Within hours of when Google’s ban was lifted, super PACs, “dark money” groups, campaigns and other political groups launched ad buys on the platform.

In addition to providing another platform for spending by super PACs pouring millions into Georgia’s Senate runoffs through TV and other outlets, online advertising has opened the door to opaque spending by “dark money” groups that would be required to report spending on more traditional ad platforms to the FEC.

Senate Republican leadership-aligned 501(c)(4) nonprofit One Nation spent at least $22,500 on digital ads in the first three days after Google’s ban was lifted, marking the dark money group’s first advertising mentioning Georgia Senate candidates during the runoffs. Google’s data indicates the ads reached between 1.5 million and 15 million Georgia viewers during the first three days.

One Nation’s new ads on Google boost Loeffler and Perdue with messages about health care, but are framed as “issue” ads that stop short of explicitly calling for an election outcome.

Since online issue ad spending is not subject to the same disclosure requirements as TV and radio ads, One Nation may buy ads up until the runoff without ever disclosing their spending to the Federal Election Commission so long as they stick to online ads and avoid explicitly calling for candidates’ election or defeat.

One Nation poured more money into 2020 elections than any other dark money group. It’s been able to avoid disclosing any of its spending to the FEC since it stopped spending on TV issues ads in the window 60 days before Election Day and limited its activities to spending on online ads and giving money to a closely-tied super PAC.

One Nation reported spending around $20 million total in 2019, according to the organization’s most recent tax returns obtained by the Center for Public Integrity’s Carrie Levine in collaboration with OpenSecrets. But this year alone, One Nation shelled out around $100 million in political contributions, TV ad spending and online ad spending. That’s more than it has reported spending overall in tax returns covering any previous year.

With the 60-day window before Georgia runoffs requiring disclosure of all spending on TV or radio ads mentioning candidates and the two leading online ad platforms banning political ads in the wake of the presidential election, One Nation was left with few options to directly influence the Senate races while still avoiding FEC disclosure.

Days before Google’s announcement, One Nation started buying TV ads targeting Georgia, as first reported on by Bloomberg Government’s Ken Doyle.

The ads focus on health care but instead of explicitly naming any candidates up for election in Georgia, the ads featured Democratic Party figureheads Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Ca.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) — effectively using them as stand-ins for Democratic candidates in the state.

Featuring national party figureheads and echoing partisan talking points without mentioning candidates up for election allows One Nation to continue avoiding FEC disclosure while amplifying messages in its online ads and in advertising by its allies.

One Nation’s TV attack ads invoking the names of Democratic Party figureheads largely mirror their newer online ads boosting Loeffler and Perdue by name. “Lose your choice of doctors” becomes “Save your choice of doctors” while “Call Congress, tell them to take their hands off our healthcare” becomes “tell Senators Loeffler and Perdue to keep fighting to protect your healthcare.”

Political ad records indicate that One Nation’s TV ads “relate to an election” even though they do not name a candidate.

One of the top spenders during the first few weeks of Georgia’s runoffs is also a grey money group heavily funded by One Nation.

Senate Leadership Fund, the Senate GOP leadership’s main super PAC received more than $60 million from One Nation and shares an office with the dark money group. The super PAC is a top spender on the Georgia Senate runoffs.

Complementing messaging in One Nation’s TV ads targeting Georgia with messages invoking Democratic Party figureheads instead of naming candidates in the runoff, Senate Leadership Fund has primarily spent on attack ads that tie Georgia’s Democratic Senate candidates to “radical liberals” including Schumer, Pelosi and AOC.

American Crossroads, a super-PAC launched by Republican strategist Karl Rove that shares an office with Senate Leadership Fund, and the more recently created Peachtree PAC are two other groups aligned with Senate GOP leadership spending heavily on Georgia’s Senate races. Altogether, the Senate Republican leadership-aligned political operation, linked to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), has reported more than $113 million in spending on Georgia’s Senate races to the FEC during the 2020 election cycle and has spent even more in undisclosed dark money.

The operation is taking advantage of the return of online advertising on Google, collectively spending more than $150,000 in the first three days after Google lifted its ban. In those three days, Senate Leadership Fund spent at least $92,500 and American Crossroads spent more than $39,000.

Senate Majority PAC and Majority Forward, Senate Leadership Fund and One Nation’s Democratic equivalents, have not yet resumed buying online ads. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spent $83,700 in Georgia during the first three days political advertising resumed.

Hybrid PAC National Victory Action Fund spent at least $3,900 supporting Loeffler and Perdue. The Republican National Committee spent at least $8,000 backing them in ads targeted to Georgia. Americans for Prosperity’s super PAC, Americans for Prosperity Action, spent at least $8,000 on messages about the economy and boosting Perdue.

Candidates are leveraging online ad platforms, too. Loeffler’s campaign spent around $115,000 in the first three days and Perdue spent $12,400. On the Democratic side, Warnock spent more than $70,000 and Ossoff spent more than $46,000.

During the first three days since Google’s ban was lifted, Trump’s joint fundraising committee spent on more than 100 nationwide ads soliciting money to “Save America” and “Fight For Fair Elections” for the “Election Defense Fund” and for the “Georgia Recount Fund.” Save America PAC, Trump’s new leadership PAC, gets 75 percent of each contribution to the efforts with remaining funds shared by Trump’s “Recount Account” and the RNC.