Dark Money “Persuasion Machine” for GOP Raised Record Cash Before 2022 Midterms

A “dark money” group raised record cash in 2020 shortly before it reportedly began touting digital operations aimed at electing Republicans in 2022, OpenSecrets review of tax records found.

Dubbed a “stealth persuasion machine” by the Washington Post, American Culture Project is a group connected to conservative activist John Tillman and a circle of closely tied nonprofits.

A fundraising proposal obtained by the Washington Post shows the operation proposed to build “assets to shape and frame the political field in advance of the 2022 election.”

The fundraising proposal claims that the “persuasion machine” can “maximize the impact for 2022 by reaching that tipping point threshold in all 11 target states and 45 of the 91 districts that determine control” with a $2.5 million gift from a donor whose identity may remain secret.

“Your support of our outreach can be the difference between the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate staying under control of the Democrats or shifting back to pro-freedom Republican majorities,” the proposal reads.

That proposal, dated March 2021, followed the operation’s record fundraising in 2020.

Tax records obtained by OpenSecrets show the American Culture Project raised more than $1.1 million in 2020, around double what it raised the prior year but far less than the $2.5 million gift outlined in the fundraising proposal.

Tax documents, digital ad data, corporate disclosures and other records show the operation has been years in the making.

Before becoming the American Culture Project, the group operated as Americans for Government Accountability. As Americans for Government Accountability, the group quietly paid for digital advertising under the name “Americans for Healthcare Freedom,” pushing against Medicare for All in Facebook and Twitter ads, according to a report from Issue One.

The newer operation touted in the leaked fundraising documents is already active in Illinois, Florida, Michigan, Ohio and Virginia. The fundraising appeal notes plans to expand to six more states: Arizona, Iowa, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin.

Mighty Michigan’s Facebook page has spent $290,000 on digital ads since the operations’ 2019 launch and Virginia Works spent another $75,000, all paid for by “American Culture.” Many of the Mighty Michigan ads are critical of the state’s Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer.

Arise Ohio has spent around $32,00 and Stand Up Florida spent around $13,500 more on Facebook ads but didn’t disclose that they are sponsored by the American Culture Project.

Not all of those state appendages fall completely under the 501(c)(4) nonprofit’s umbrella.

While Virginia Works’ Facebook ads are paid for by the American Culture Project, a disclaimer on its website notes that Virginia Works is actually sponsored by the American Culture Foundation, an affiliated 501(c)(3) tax exempt nonprofit that is barred from any political activity at all.

Tax records show the American Culture Foundation raised $426,000 in 2020, up from just $70,000 the previous year.

Pages like Arise Ohio, Stand Up Florida and Mighty Michigan can most directly be traced to the operation since they list “American Culture” in disclaimers on Facebook or their websites but the “digital persuasion machine” is much more far-reaching.

Illinois Policy Institute, the operation’s flagship organization that served as a playbook for American Culture’s projects, has spent more than $1.6 million through its own Facebook page. While those ads list the Illinois Policy Institute as the payor, its Facebook page was managed by Americans for Government Accountability through at least October 2020, according to archived copies of the pages maintained through the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.

The close ties among the groups do not stop at their digital media. OpenSecrets’ review of tax records unearthed shared donors among the groups as well.

Tax filings found that the Uihlein Family Foundation, an organization controlled by Republican mega-donor Richard Uihlein, gave $2.2 million to the Illinois Policy Institute in 2020.

The institute received another $250,000 from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, tax records show.

Multiple nodes of the operation have used DonorsTrust, a donor-advised fund commonly used by conservative dark money groups as a vehicle to give and receive money, adding an extra layer of secrecy between the groups and their donors. Tax records reviewed by OpenSecrets show that in 2020, DonorsTrust steered $125,000 to the American Culture Foundation and $48,200 to the Illinois Policy Institute.

Unlike the American Culture Project and American Culture Foundation, Illinois Policy Institute’s revenue did not spike in 2020 though it took in more than either group with a revenue of $7.5 million.

While the leaked fundraising document reveals unique details of American Culture Project’s operations, this is hardly the only group operating under the guise of a news or community operation with deep ties to partisan operatives.

The operation is part of a new breed of dark money campaigns that have leveraged social media and other digital platforms to target their messaging to voters along with other enticing content.

Digital media loopholes have allowed a growing number of dark money groups to engage in similar tactics but with many of the other groups engaging in similar tactics, the public does not have access to that same level of information due to the lack of transparency requirements.