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Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., railed against the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court, citing Kavanaugh’s opinions that restrictions on the flow of "dark money" issue ads are unconstitutional.
McCaskill called Kavanaugh’s views on dark money "the determining factor" in voting no on his confirmation. But has she benefited from dark money more than any U.S. senator?
Her opponent in Missouri’s U.S. Senate race, Republican Attorney General Josh Hawley, claimed in a tweet on Sept. 25 that McCaskill "has had Chuck Schumer spend more dark money for her than for any senator in America." Hawley claimed that the amount was "$16 million and counting!"
"Dark money," or political spending by unknown donors, is hard to track. Dark money groups don’t have to report their expenditures, and often, they don’t. It’s hard to know how much dark money influences election cycles.
That ambiguity made Hawley’s claim that McCaskill has received more than $16 million intriguing to us. We decided to investigate further.
Although these two PACs are considered to be controlled by Senate Minority Leader Schumer, D-N.Y., only one is considered by experts to be a dark money group.
Senate Majority PAC, established in 2010 to support Democratic U.S. Senate candidates, is considered a super PAC, with the ability to raise unlimited sums of money. The third biggest super PAC in the nation, Senate Majority PAC is required to report its donors, who include George Soros, Bill Maher and Seth MacFarlane, to the Federal Election Commission monthly during election years, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
As a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, Majority Forward does not disclose donors, which is why some call it a dark money group, said Brendan Glavin, data and systems manager of the Campaign Finance Institute, in an Oct. 10 email.
As of Oct. 22, Majority Forward has spent over $35 million in total during the 2018 election cycle, according to data calculated by the FEC and gathered by the Center for Responsive Politics. It’s mostly spending against Republican candidates; barely over $3 million of this goes in support of Democrats.
In Missouri, Majority Forward has spent no money in support of McCaskill but has spent just under $3 million against Hawley. Hawley is Majority Forward’s fifth-highest spending target, and the top seven are all against Republicans.
Senate Majority PAC has spent more money against Hawley than for or against any candidate, with $10,793,478 against the Missouri attorney general, as of Oct. 22. McCaskill’s receipt of $3,296,351 ranks her third among Democratic candidates.
Senate Majority PAC and Majority Forward do share "office space, staff members and even a president." But that doesn’t mean that Senate Majority PAC is spending dark money, and we cannot count its considerable expenditures in the Missouri race as evidence of dark money per Hawley’s claim.
Dark money groups don’t always promptly disclose their spending, Anna Massoglia of the Center for Responsive Politics said in an email on Oct. 9. Some dark money spending isn’t reported at all, especially when dark money groups run "issue ads" that don’t explicitly endorse or speak out against one specific candidate. These ads don’t have to be reported to the FEC.
Though his numbers were based on reported expenditures, Hawley may be more correct than he thought. Massoglia noted that grassroots organizing, voter mobilization campaigns and digital ads are hard to track and "may be unaccounted for until long after the election is over." This makes extra dark money spent for McCaskill or against Hawley difficult, if not impossible, to account for.
Glavin pointed out Majority Forward’s unreported expenditures in Missouri. "According to media reports Majority Forward has been spending money in Missouri since 2017 on get out the vote activities and ads that do not require reporting to the FEC," Glavin said.
Both Massoglia and Glavin told PolitiFact they couldn’t verify Hawley’s claim of $16 million in dark money spent by Schumer on behalf of McCaskill.
"The most outside spending reported in FEC disclosures for McCaskill or against Hawley that could be loosely attributed to Schumer as of this date totals just under $15 million at this date," Massoglia said.
But she clarified that those contributions included not just Majority Forward but also Senate Majority PAC, which has to disclose its donors.
Attorney General Hawley claimed that dark money spent on McCaskill’s campaign totals $16 million and counting, the most of any U.S. senator.
Hawley is correct that Missouri’s Senate race has been the target of the most spending by Senate Majority PAC on one candidate, as well as the most between Senate Majority and Majority Forward, the two PACs attributable to Schumer.
But when we look at just the dark money group, Majority Forward, the numbers tell a different story. Majority Forward hasn’t actually contributed to McCaskill, although it has spent about $3 million opposing Hawley.
It is hard to account for all of the dark money spent in an election, and more continues to flow in. But Hawley’s claim was based on reported spending numbers. He’s off by roughly $13 million, considerably inaccurate in assessing the amount of dark money spent on McCaskill’s behalf.
We rate this claim Mostly False.
PolitiFact, "How much dark money is fueling the Kavanaugh confirmation fight?." Oct. 5, 2018.
PolitiFact, "Ten times more 'dark money' has been spent for 2016 elections, U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin says," Nov. 5, 2015.
United States Senator Claire McCaskill, Citing Concerns on Dark Money, McCaskill to Oppose Nomination of Judge Kavanaugh to Supreme Court, Sept. 19, 2018.
NBC News, "How Democrats use dark money — and win elections," Feb. 20, 2018.
Email interview, Anna Massoglia, Center for Responsive Politics, Oct. 9, 2018.
Email interview, Brendan Glavin, Data & Systems Manager, Campaign Finance Institute, Oct. 10, 2018.
Email interview, Kelli Ford, Press Secretary, Hawley for Senate, Oct. 12, 2018.
Opensecrets.org, "Majority Forward," Oct. 14, 2018.
Opensecrets.org, "Senate Majority PAC," Oct. 14, 2018.
Opensecrets.org, "Super PACs," Oct. 22, 2018.
FEC, "SMP," Oct. 12, 2018.
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