For years, Democrats have railed against anonymous campaign contributions as a uniquely corrupting political force — even as they benefited from a record-shattering amount of "dark money" donations during the 2020 election.
A report published by the Center for Responsive Politics shows that "dark money" topped $1 billion during the recent election cycle. That includes about $660 million in contributions from anonymous donors to outside groups – with about $514 million going toward liberal groups, compared to the roughly $200 million that boosted Republicans.
Critics of dark money, which obscures the source of the funds, argue that voters should know who's funding political advertisements and campaigns. The Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan group, has called it a "serious threat to our democracy," and Issue One, another nonpartisan group that aims to reduce the influence of money in politics, has called it "the most toxic force in politics."
Although Democrats have previously introduced legislation to crack down on dark money donations, it did not stop them from benefiting anonymous donations themselves as they fought to defeat Donald Trump and win back control of the Senate.
President Biden, for instance, benefited from about $174 million in anonymous donations to groups that supported him, far outstripping the $25.2 million spent on behalf of Trump, the report says.
Each of the top pro-Biden super PACs, including Future Forward USA and Priorities USA Action, received multimillion-dollar contributions from Sixteen Thirty Fund.
Sixteen Thirty Fund, which operates as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit and bills itself as "dedicated to supporting an entrepreneurial, creative, and ambitious start-up culture in the nonprofit advocacy world," is a dark money group that directs funds from secret donors to projects it sponsors. This effectively allows it to operate anonymously. It acts as a fiscal sponsor for more than 50 groups that lack tax-exempt status or do not exist as separately incorporated entities.
The group is closely tied to Arabella Advisors, a firm that advises donors and nonprofits about where to give money. It was founded by former Clinton administration appointee Eric Kessler, who serves as the president and chair of Sixteen Thirty Fund.
As part of his government reform plan, Biden called for banning certain types of nonprofits from spending money in elections and requiring that any group that spends more than $10,000 on federal elections to require with the Federal Election Commission and publicly disclose its donors. Under such a proposal, some of the dark-money groups backing him would have been forced to name their donors.
Biden raised $1.5 billion — a record — for his campaign, which can accept donations of no more than $2,800 from individual donors under FEC laws. That figure includes $318.6 million from donors who gave less than $200 each; the rest stemmed from donors who gave at least $825,000, with that money split between Biden's campaign and the Democratic National Committee.
Historically, conservatives have dominated the dark money game, previously outspending liberal organizations by a nearly 4-to-1 ratio, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Following the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010, conservative spending outpaced that of liberals by almost 11-to-1. But that trend has started to shift in recent years: During the 2018 midterm elections, liberal groups outpaced their conservative counterparts in dark money spending on political ads for the first time since 2010.