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Right-Wing Dark Money Flooded the Midterm, But Young Voters Beat the Red Wave

GOP-aligned dark money groups spent big trying to generate a “red wave” in the midterms — but they lost instead.

Students clap as Sen. Raphael Warnock speaks at a campaign event at Atlanta University Center Consortium Campus on Election Day on November 8, 2022, in Atlanta, Georgia.

Part of the Series

Dark money groups aligned with the GOP spent big trying to generate a “red wave” in the 2022 election, but they lost big, with a few notable exceptions.

Outside groups spent at least $2.1 billion in the federal elections. That does not include any money spent by U.S. House and Senate candidates, whose donors are disclosed and the amounts capped, which, in other words, is not “dark money.” The required disclosures by political parties accounted for just $269 million of outside spending, according to OpenSecrets.

The remaining nearly $1.9 billion, with a “b,” was not subject to any limits on how much could be raised or spent. More than $1.2 billion of that was spent by so-called super PACs, to which billionaires and dark money groups can give unlimited millions. Super PACs now number more than 2,000, a staggering figure.

In sum, 2022 saw the most ever spent on “independent expenditures” by groups outside of party committees and candidates in any year other than the 2020 presidential election.

Such spending has been growing exponentially, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court led by Chief Justice John Roberts, a GOP appointee, and the billionaire donor class it has set loose.

Back in 2010, in the first election held after the Roberts Court’s Citizens United ruling removed the outside contribution rules, independent expenditures amounted to less than $400 million, itself a 14-fold increase since such spending first took off during the 1996 presidential election.

The eruption of the now-quaint amount of nearly $21 million in secretly sourced federal election spending in 1996 led to the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA). The law’s goal was to constrain and expose dark money threatening to distort our representative democracy and displace our freedoms with secret influence. BCRA went into effect 20 years ago this month and lasted eight years but could not survive the Roberts Court.

Who is the beneficiary of the spending that has been unleashed, aside from corporate media companies selling ad space and the political consultant industry that produces ads and more?

In every election since that ruling (except for 2020) most of the dark money spending has been to aid the GOP. In 2022, looking at the top 10 biggest spenders outside of political parties, GOP-aligned groups had a 2-to-1 advantage in spending to try to take over the House and Senate.

And no one has been able to tally the total amount of dark money spent this year by such groups to influence races for Congress as well as for governor, attorney general, secretary of state, state treasurer, state supreme courts, legislatures, school boards, utility boards, and more, which were also targeted for a “red wave.”

Also not fully tallied: the money spent by 501(c)(3) nonprofit/charitable arms of 501(c)(4) advocacy groups on “issue education” to influence Americans who might vote for federal, state and local candidates.

Due to weaknesses in federal law plus a recent ruling by the Roberts Court in favor of Charles Koch’sAmericans for Prosperity” (in an eponymous case), those charities will only publicly disclose their expenditures from this year in 2023 and will not disclose their biggest funders, even to the agencies charged with preventing misuse of charities. But we have seen how some (c)(3)s time their outreach to potential voters on issues to coincide with their (c)(4)’s appeals to vote, as with the Koch-funded 501(c)(3) “Independent Women’s Forum” and 501(c)(4)“Independent Women’s Voice.”

U.S. elections have been swamped with dark money since the Roberts Court overturned nearly a century of legal precedents to declare BCRA’s limits on corporate and nonprofit spending unconstitutional and rule in favor of the right-wing dark money group that calls itself “Citizens United.” But it is secretive dark money groups, corporations and billionaires, not everyday citizens, who have united to inject hundreds of millions from their growing income into our elections.

Guess who jump-started the dark money game back in 1996? Charles and David Koch. As the Wall Street Journal’s reporting described their secret funding around congressional races in Kansas: “The episode was a major event in modern political financing, marking the return of massive anonymous contributions to American politics after a 20-year hiatus” since Congress had adopted anti-corruption rules in the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA).

In Citizens United, the Roberts Court recast the First Amendment — drafted with quill pens by white men living in an era when few corporations even existed — to assert that putting limits on political spending by corporations, for-profit and nonprofit, violated freedom of speech. But as the dissenting opinion noted, our history does not support that interpretation, nor does common sense:

“While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.”

The Roberts Court even claimed that a lack of coordination with the political candidate who benefits from such outside spending devalues that spending. The free market, so to speak, heartily disagrees with that valuation.

In fact, it is very valuable for candidates to be able to publicly distance themselves from vicious ads that help their campaigns by attacking their opponents. Not only is it free money, but it is also far less risky than doing it yourself.

Unsurprisingly, 69 percent of the $2.1 billion spent in 2022 — nearly $1.5 billion — went to blanketing potential voters with negative advertising and attacks on candidates.

The Roberts Court also deployed “both-sides”-ism in Citizens United, declaring that the ruling benefited both corporations and labor unions, although the treasuries at their disposal were never an equal threat.

In 2022, only $5.6 million — less than a third of a percent of the $2.1 billion spent by outside groups — was spent by unions. GOP-aligned groups — with help from the Bradley Foundation, the Koch fortune and other billionaires — have used the courts to weaken the political power of organized labor unions because of the aggregated power they give small-donor members who check off a box allowing a portion of their dues to be spent in politics. Union spending is literally and figuratively the antithesis of dark money billionaire bucks.

So how did we get here?

A big part of the blame goes to right-wing operative Leonard Leo and his funders, who orchestrated the capture of the Supreme Court. That includes, you guessed it, the Koch fortune.

Earlier this year, we at True North Research tallied the amount Leo’s network had raised in recent years to pack the court and change laws at $600 million, but we now know that he controls more than a billion dollars due to a massive secret gift by industrialist Barre Seid.

As Leo helped secure the selection and confirmation of Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett to the court, his personal assets appear to have increased dramatically. Destroying reproductive rights and corporate regulations seems like a lucrative business. Barrett’s appointment on election eve in 2020 secured the pivotal fifth vote Samuel Alito needed to overturn decades of law based on Roe v. Wade and also attack climate change regulations.

Now the Roberts Court has its sights set on assailing affirmation action/efforts to redress structural racism and using the invented “independent state legislature” theory to dictate that state legislatures have uncheckable power over federal elections so that no one else can protect the freedom to vote, which is under attack by despots backed by multimillionaire cranks like Mike Lindell.

In the context of this legal onslaught, as well as the rising electorate’s rejection of such regression, right-wing super PACs and dark money groups sought a red wave to win control of Congress, state legislatures and secretaries of state. The goal was to wield the levers of power to dictate the outcome of the 2024 presidential election — no matter the vote — just as Trump sought to do in 2020 as he incited the January 6 insurrection.

GOP pollsters flooded the zone with partisan polls, amplified by for-profit news outlets which devoted hours to endless speculation that Democrats were going to lose big. But progressive organizers, especially young voters and people of color across generations, refused to give in to the hype, and the results were stunning:

  • Democrats gained governorships and in state legislatures, securing trifectas in four more states, including Michigan where they won a legislative majority for the first time in 40 years.
  • All of the 2020 election “deniers”/insurrectionists seeking the power of secretary of state were defeated or projected to be defeated (Arizona, Washington, Wisconsin and Nevada, plus secretaries of state in Maryland and Pennsylvania will be appointed by Democratic governors).
  • Most of the state supreme courts that GOP-aligned dark money groups targeted for takeover were left intact (Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Montana and Michigan), but two states — where GOP legislators recently required party labels on judicial candidates (Ohio and North Carolina) — were not.

There was no red wave, though there was GOP entrenchment in Florida and Texas. Since Election Day, Democrats have held control of the Senate, and control of the House is still being contested, far from the rout or even 100-seat pick up projected by Steve Bannon.

President Joe Biden will likely have the best showing in a first-term midterm election in 50 years, with the exception of the election after 9/11, despite the obstacles to fair elections created by the Roberts Court in Citizens United (unleashing dark money), Shelby County v. Holder (gutting the Voting Rights Act to allow voter suppression), Rucho v. Common Cause (suspending federal court oversight over hyper-partisan legislative map drawing), Merrill v. Milligan (halting a ruling that overturned racist redistricting in Alabama earlier this year), and “shadow docket” rulings that favored Republicans and right-wing agendas.

How did this happen? Overturning Roe v. Wade certainly had an effect, but Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and other right-wing politicians put the blame on Biden for pushing progressive ideas that motivated younger voters. How dare a president take action to reduce the heavy debt burdening recent graduates, or speak out against oil companies gouging working people to pad rich people’s revenue, or choose judges who reflect the beautiful diversity of the U.S., or support raising the minimum wage that has been stalled for years, or honor generations that want to make sure people are respected for who they are, can marry who they love, and can choose if and when to have a child?

It is not pandering to embrace policies that most people support and that make their lives better. That’s what a healthy representative democracy is supposed to do. An unhealthy one, on the other hand, panders to the richest few to thwart the will of the many.

When Americans have a chance to vote on progressive issues directly, like raising the minimum wage (Nebraska) or protecting reproductive rights (Kansas, Michigan, Kentucky, Montana, California, and every town in Vermont), those measures often pass.

For years we have known that Citizens United was despised by most Americans regardless of party. In the midterms, Arizona voters overwhelmingly passed (by 73 percent) a referendum requiring the true sources of funding for major ad buys be disclosed. Of course, the referendum was opposed by dark money groups like Koch’s Americans for Prosperity and the Koch-funded Arizona Free Enterprise Club, which will likely challenge the new rule in federal courts Koch helped pack.

What really made the difference, though, amid the record outside money polluting this election?

Young people.

Voters under 30 engaged in the second-largest turnout in decades, and they are overwhelmingly progressive, according to exit polling and NextGen. Nearly one-third of this generation voted in the midterm elections amid devastating climate change, rising fascism, emboldened white supremacy, a plague of mass shootings, and grossly unjust right-wing economic policies that enrich billionaires at everyone else’s expense — all of which threaten our present and their future. A supermajority of voters under 40 voted for Democrats, unlike older generations.

What is the response of Republicans? Some suggested raising the voting age to 21, despite their support for abortion bans sought by the Leo-supported groups like Students for Life of America, which force victims of incest and children as young as 10 to become parents.

No way is the voting age going to be raised in the next two years, or ever.

But another 8 million young Americans will be eligible to vote in the next presidential election; and if even a third of them register and vote, that would constitute 2.6 million more votes in 2024.

The future is now, and with dark money rising the only antidote is the rising electorate making sure their voices on freedom, equality, climate, our economy and justice are heard, loud and clear.

Note: A correction was made to fix an editing error regarding the percent of spending from outside groups that came from unions.