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Dark Money Casts Shadow on Top 10 U.S. Senate Races, New Analysis Shows

Nov. 8, 2012

Dark Money Casts Shadow on Top 10 U.S. Senate Races, New Analysis Shows

Nearly Half of All Outside Spending Was by Groups That Hide the Identities of Their Donors

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Nearly half of all spending by unrestricted outside groups seeking to influence this year’s top 10 Senate races originated from entities that do not typically disclose their donors, a Public Citizen analysis released today shows.

Outside groups — which were permitted by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision to use unlimited contributions from corporations and wealthy individuals to influence elections — spent more than $190 million on this year’s most competitive Senate races, according to Public Citizen’s analysis of data provided by the Center for Responsive Politics. Of this, more than $90 million was spent by 501(c) nonprofit groups that do not have to disclose their funders. The remainder was spent by super PACs, which also may accept unlimited donations but must disclose their donors, much like traditional political action committees. 

“This report’s findings reinforce the need to disclose the identities of these groups’ funders,” said Lisa Gilbert, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division. “Not only does Congress need to pass the DISCLOSE Act, but the Securities and Exchange Commission should require corporations to disclose the details of their political spending.”

“The effect of Citizens United has been to deny the public the opportunity to learn the identity of sponsors behind a large percentage of political ads,” Gilbert added. “It is likely that the donors that have been kept secret are those that would be the most controversial, such as corporations seeking favors. Until Congress or agencies mandate disclosure, we will not know the truth. ”

The 10 Senate races included in the study were in Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin. Public Citizen researchers also found that:

• The 20 top-spending 501(c) groups spent more than $87 million in the 10 races studied, accounting for more than 95 percent of all 501(c) spending in the 10 contests. Crossroads GPS and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which occupy the top two spots, accounted for three-fifths (60.5 percent) of all spending by the 501(c) groups.

• Dark money groups are more likely to support Republicans than Democrats, as 15 of the top 20 501(c) organizations are rated as conservative. Only four of the top 20 groups supported Democrats, and one, Center Forward, had an unknown ideology.

• Republican- and Democratic-aligned super PACs spent roughly the same amount as 501(c)s to influence the competitive Senate races examined. However, Republican-aligned 501(c) groups outspent their Democratic counterparts by more than $60 million, while super PAC spending was nearly equal along ideological lines.

The analysis is available here.

Other recent Public Citizen reports about outside group spending in the 2012 elections include:

Citizens United Fuels Negative Spending” 

Tipping Elections With Secret Cash?”

“Super Connected”