The Supreme Court handed down its decision on Citizens United in January 2010. But a strange thing happened during the next two presidential elections. Flush with dark money, Karl Rove developed a plan for outside groups to invest $1 billion in 2012 to unseat President Barack Obama and turn the Senate Republican. But all of that money produced a 1% return on their investment. According to Politico, big donors were not happy. Then in 2016, the big money king of the Republican primary, Jeb Bush, saw his candidacy go nowhere. At least in presidential elections, the dark money train was a total bust.
There are some signs that big money donors have changed their game plan. It's not that they've completely stopped spending money to elect their favorite politicians. But they're looking elsewhere to reach their goals. These days we're seeing reports like this one from the the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel pop up all over the country.
A loose network of conservative groups with ties to major Republican donors and party-aligned think tanks is quietly lending firepower to local activists engaged in culture war fights in schools across the country.
While they are drawn by the anger of parents opposed to school policies on racial history or COVID-19 protocols like mask mandates, the groups are often run by political operatives and lawyers standing ready to amplify local disputes.
In a wealthy Milwaukee suburb, a law firm heavily financed by a conservative foundation that has fought climate change mitigation and that has ties to former President Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election helped parents seeking to recall Mequon-Thiensville school board members, chiefly over the board’s hiring of a diversity consultant. A new national advocacy group, Parents Defending Education, promoted the Wisconsin parents’ tactics as a model.
The conservative foundation referred to in the paragraph above is the Bradley Foundation. To get some idea about what these dark money groups are up to, let's focus on what they're funding these days. With all of the focus on groups like the Koch brothers, you might not have heard of the Bradley Foundation. But according to the Center for Media and Democracy, they are one of America's largest right wing foundations, "with $835 million in assets as of June 2016, the Bradley Foundation is as large as the three Koch family foundations combined."
During the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse offered a clinic on how dark money was pulling the strings of Republican efforts to stack the courts. If you haven't already watched his 28 minute presentation, I highly recommend that you do so. The Bradley Foundation was featured prominently, donating to conservative groups that (1) select court nominees, (2) run public relations efforts on the nominee's behalf, and (3) bring court cases and orchestrate the filing of amicus briefs. So yes, we can blame Republican senators for stacking the courts. But dark money going to groups like the Federalist Society and the Judicial Crisis Network explain how its being done.
According to investigative reporter Jane Mayer, the Bradley Foundation also invested heavily in promoting the so-called "Big Lie" that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Trump. Mayer calculates that since 2012 the foundation has spent some $18 million on groups tied to voter suppression legislation, and most recently on stoking false fears of a stolen election. It has been a generous funder of a list of groups working to promote the Big Lie, including the Heritage Foundation, ALEC (American Legislative Action Council), Federalist Society, Honest Election Project (formerly the Judicial Education Project), Election Integrity Project California, FreedomWorks’ National Election Protection Initiative, True the Vote and Turning Point. It is also worth noting that Cleta Mitchell, who was on Trump's "find me 11,780 votes" call with Georgia election officials, serves on the board of the Bradley Foundation.
Since 2003, the Bradley Foundation has annually awarded up to four $250,000 cash prizes to “distinguished individuals whose extraordinary talents have influenced American scholarship and debate.” Recipients have drawn heavily from the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal, including Paul Gigot, Kimberly Strassell, and Peggy Noonan. Other recipients include Roger Ailes, George Will, Michael Barone, and Bret Stephens.
Based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the Bradley Foundation has a long history of attempting to undermine both public education and labor unions. Michael Grebe, the CEO and president from 2002-2016, chaired Scott Walker’s campaigns for governor, as well as his run for the White House in 2016.
Mary Botari writes that one of the major goals of the foundation "appears to be pursuing a highly partisan game plan: funding an “infrastructure” on the right that benefits the Republican Party, while at the same time attempting to crush supporters of the Democratic Party." Internal documents she reviewed "discuss the creation of 'grassroots organizations that argued for and defended the reforms in public discourse,' the funding of 'public interest legal groups that argued for and defended the programs in court,' and 'investigative journalism that doesn’t rely on old or new organs of the left and is able to stand on its own.'”
On the partisan nature of these activities, Jane Mayer commented that "this appears to be more evidence that a few powerful private foundations are weaponizing philanthropy for their own private political purposes. The government gives charitable foundations tax breaks in exchange for furthering the public good. Instead, it sounds as if the Bradley Foundation has been furthering the good of its own political agenda. It really begs some serious legal questions.”
Keep in mind that the Bradley Foundation is just one of the dark money groups that is "weaponizing philanthropy for their own private political purposes." But this all helps explain the frustration PoliticalGirl articulated about messaging.
Correct. pic.twitter.com/evSZYRCaFV— lalah hathaway (@lalahhathaway) September 4, 2021
The right wing not only has an entire network of sites devoted to spreading their propaganda. They also have millions of dollars in dark money being poured into doing things like stacking the courts, attacking public education, and building an infrastructure to benefit the Republican Party.
So Democrats can criticize their own elected officials for not being as good as Republicans at messaging. There might even be some truth to that. But let's be clear about how the dark money game is being played today. For the most part, these groups are not as focused on funding political campaigns. Instead, they are weaponizing philanthropy to fight their culture wars and gain political advantage. That's what Democrats are up against. To engage in the battle means being clear about what the opposition is up to.