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Dems learn to love 'dark money'

What’s the first thing you think of when you hear about “dark money” political spending? Karl Rove? The Koch Brothers? Try the League of Conservation Voters.
A delegate wears a tie branded with a donkey at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, Sept. 5, 2012.
A delegate wears a tie branded with a donkey at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, Sept. 5, 2012.

Quick! What’s the first thing you think of when you hear about shadowy “dark money” groups trying to sway elections?

We’re guessing conservative powerbrokers like Karl Rove and the Koch Brothers come to mind. And there’s a good reason for that: the right was responsible for the vast majority of dark money spent during last year’s election cycle.

But this time around, things may be different. It’s very early days yet, but liberal dark money groups have outspent conservative ones by well over two to one this year. The about-face suggests that progressives may be accommodating to the political spending free-for-all of the post-Citizens-United era by holding their noses and learning to play the game.

According to new numbers compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, so far in the 2013-2014 cycle, liberal dark money groups—that is, groups that use sections of the tax code that allow them not to disclose their donors—have spent over $1.7 million. That dwarfs the $740,000 spent by conservative groups. Compare that to the 2011-2012 cycle, when five conservative groups—including Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS, the Koch Brothers’ Americans for Prosperity, and Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform—accounted for nearly $300 million, or seven out of every ten dark money dollars spent.

In addition to the dark money spending gap, the Democratic House campaign committee and the DNC also have outraised their GOP counterparts lately. That money is less controversial, though, and it’s not unusual in recent cycles for Democrats to have an advantage there.

The potential change in the dark money race could be far more significant. Outside spending favored the right so massively last year that Democrats like Nancy Pelosi talked about long-term plans to amend the Constitution in order to scrap the Citizens United decision. Many progressives viewed doing so as a crucial part of being able to compete with Republicans on a level electoral playing-field over the long term.

Democrats haven’t backed off that stance. And in the fight over campaign finance rules, it’s still Democrats pushing for tighter limits, and Republicans trying to loosen things further. Disclosure rules—that is, when to require groups to reveal their donors—are a current point of contention. That's even though many Republicans, including Seate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the party's point-man on the issue, used to support disclosure, when they saw it as a compromise measure to ward off actual spending limits.

But while pushing for stricter rules, Democrats are in the meantime taking a more pragmatic “if-you-can’t beat-‘em-join-‘em” approach.

Perhaps nothing underlines that better than the identity of the candidate who benefited from the single largest chunk of dark money this cycle, according to CRP's numbers: Democrat Ed Markey, whose successful run for the U.S. Senate in a Massachusetts special election this year got a major boost from $814,000 in dark money spent by the League of Conservation Voters (LCV), an environmental group.

Outside groups are barred by law from coordinating with candidates, so Markey had no direct say in the spending on his behalf. But the flood of cash is awkward for the candidate—because Markey is a prominent advocate of strict campaign finance laws.

In February, he compared the Citizens United ruling to Dred Scott, the infamous 1857 Supreme Court decision in support of slavery. And in a message to supporters just last month, Markey specifically raised the issue of disclosure, slamming Citizens United for green-lighting floods of political cash “with very little disclosure or transparency.”

Markey’s certainly not the only Democrat who’s had to negotiate those tensions. In October 2012, President Obama attended a Hollywood fundraiser for a liberal Super PAC—helping to secure three $1 million checks—despite an earlier pledge to stay away from such events, Mark Halperin and John Heilemann report in Double Down, their new campaign tell-all.