For 2020 Dems, Dark Money Is Taboo -- and Much Needed

For 2020 Dems, Dark Money Is Taboo -- and Much Needed
AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
For 2020 Dems, Dark Money Is Taboo -- and Much Needed
AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
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Pete Buttigieg, who has rapidly hurtled from obscurity in the Midwest to national prominence, is frustrated.

"We've allowed our conservative friends to get a monopoly on the idea of freedom," the mayor of South Bend, Ind., told voters in South Carolina earlier this month. Republicans talk in terms of freedom from government. Democrats, the upstart presidential candidate argued, should talk in terms of freedom to access government-guaranteed rights like abortion and gay marriage.

And so Buttigieg wants a great rebranding. Normally, he would welcome the efforts of a group of operatives working to reclaim the “freedom” vocabulary. Their nonprofit organization, Future Majority, will serve as the branding consultant for 2020, operate a war room to counter conservative messaging, and help Democrats win back the Midwest. They have $60 million in the bank. They are a political nonprofit capable of raising and spending unlimited amounts of so-called dark money without disclosing their donors or activities.

And they are awkward for candidates like Buttigieg. Like the rest of the pack seeking the Democratic nomination, he has condemned big money in politics. He denounced Citizens United as “a disaster,” complaining that the Supreme Court decision, which allows unlimited political spending by corporations and unions, “has come to mean that dollars can vote.”

This raises an embarrassing question for each of the candidates competing to take on President Trump: Will they swear off dark money but let others spend it on their behalf?

The irony isn’t lost on Mark Riddle, the executive director of Future Majority. While the group’s political engine burns through this kind of cash, he insisted his organization supports campaign finance reform. A link can be even found on its website to HR1, legislation that would crack down on such spending.

But to get rid of excess money in politics, money in politics is apparently necessary. “Democrats cannot go into the 2020 elections with one arm tied behind their back,” Riddle told RealClearPolitics.

“Obviously we respect each individual candidate in the presidential horse race for trying to carve out a niche,” Riddle said of the numerous candidates condemning dark money. “But at the end of the day, we need a fully funded operation to beat Trump, McConnell, the RNC, the Russians, or whomever else.”

In short, Democrats aren’t willing to unilaterally disarm -- mismatched messaging and political tactics be damned. After all, the America First Action super PAC, the scandal riddled Great America PAC, and Future 45 PAC are already up, running, and spending big to keep Trump in the White House another four years.

Riddle wants a campaign apparatus ready to counter each of them. And when Americans walk into voting booths and choose from among candidates with an “R,” a “D,” or an “I” by their names, his group aims to make the choice of a “D” more likely, especially in the heartland states that Hillary Clinton lost in 2016.

“The D has been defined negatively, and so the work we are doing at Future Majority is to help bolster the D in the actual ballot box. We believe that the D, the actions of people who are Democrats, tends to represent the hard-working folks in the country,” Riddle said.

Future Majority is not alone on the left. It is just the latest deep-pocketed liberal group promising to spend big to advance the progressive cause at a moment when Democrats demand campaign finance reform. Priorities USA, for instance, also announced a $100 million spending spree in swing states.

It is unclear where Future Majority will get its money, and until Politico reported on its launch the group flew under the radar. As that publication noted, however, the operation is quickly becoming a juggernaut.

It has drafted top talent in Dan Sena, formerly of the DCCC, and Julianna Smoot, once of the Obama campaign. They will serve under co-chairs Philip Munger, heir to the fortune of Berkshire Hathaway billionaire Charles Munger, and Dan Tierney, millionaire founder of a high-speed trading app called GetCo. The operation will be funded, in part, by Keith Mestrich, president of Amalgamated Bank.

Dark money doesn’t bother Riddle though. “You can’t govern unless you win,” he said, adding that he sleeps well at night knowing that, if Future Majority is successful, Democrats will retake control of the White House and place stricter limits on operations like his.

And candidate concerns over spending may be overblown -- or just for show. “I was part of the team in 2018,” Riddle said, “and I can’t remember anyone on election night saying, ‘Gosh, it is great we won but isn’t a shame there were super PACs?’”

Federal law prohibits committees from making contributions to individual candidates, and Future Majority has promised to be ecumenical by promoting liberal policy positions instead of specific politicians.

The group, however, has a tangential connection to at least one candidate. According to filings publicly available through the Federal Election Commission, Matthew Allen Tompkins serves as the founding treasurer. As the conservative Free Beacon reported, he also founded a political action committee called Biden PAC.  That may be just a byproduct of the incestuous nature of political fundraising, however: Riddle said Future Majority doesn’t coordinate with the Biden PAC and will not favor any candidate. He dismissed the participation of Tompkins, a prolific fundraiser, in both efforts as just “an interesting coincidence.”

After the former vice president jumped into the race Tuesday, the Biden campaign distanced itself from the group. Before declaring, Biden called for campaign finance reform, and in November he noted that the issue “should be of interest to both Democrats and Republicans who want to reduce our vulnerability to foreign corrupt influence.”

Decrying dark money as democratic heresy has become de rigueur for any progressive running for president. Sen. Kamala Harris complained this kind of spending was “manipulating the election process.” Sen. Elizabeth Warren denounced dark money as “one of the principle tools of rich and powerful people.” Sen. Cory Booker concluded glumly that it had already “corrupted our democracy.”

In one way or the other, each presidential hopeful is following the example set by Sen. Bernie Sanders. The democratic socialist is the undeniable OG of campaign finance reform who set the bar by swearing off corporate money four years ago.

“During the 2016 campaign cycle, billions of dollars from the wealthiest people in this country flooded the political process.  Super PACs – a direct outgrowth of the Citizens United decision – are enabling the wealthiest people and the largest corporations in this country to contribute unlimited amounts of money to campaigns,” Sanders wrote in 2018.

“The situation has become so absurd that super PACs, which theoretically operate independently of the actual candidates, have more money and more influence over campaigns than the candidates themselves,” he concluded.

This sentiment has all but become doctrine. Candidates will work out on the campaign trail what the new orthodoxy demands. The field seems content for now to offer general condemnations while unaffiliated operatives engage in what is largely seen as a necessary evil.

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