‘Dark Money’ Groups Battle Online Over Reconciliation Bill

Digital ad network portals provide a view of the ad wars around the Build Back Better Act.

‘Dark Money’ Groups Battle Online Over Reconciliation Bill
Dark money groups on the left and right are spending big on Facebook ads to influence public opinion on the reconciliation package that Congress is debating.

In the past several weeks, as Congress has debated the Build Back Better Act reconciliation bill that in its latest form would appropriate $1.75 trillion over ten years to enact Democratic policies, advocacy groups have been spending millions of dollars on ads, targeting the constituents of members of Congress who are considered key votes. By forming new entities and by being careful not to step over the line into what the Federal Election Commission considers independent expenditures, it’s likely that the public will never know who financed many of these campaigns to shape public opinion on the budget reconciliation bill. 

Because most of the advertising around the bill does not expressly advocate the election or defeat of candidates and thus is not reported to the government, it’s impossible to track every entity that is buying ads around the reconciliation battle and how much they are spending. But by reviewing data from transparency portals that digital ad network companies Facebook and Google have voluntarily made public, a partial picture of the online spending can be put together.  

The top purchaser of pro-Build Back Better Act spots on Facebook since the beginning of October has been an entity called Climate Power, which was founded last year by the League of Conservation Voters, the Center for American Progress Action Fund, and the Sierra Club. The group describes itself as “an independent strategic communications and paid media operation focused on building the political will and public support for bold climate action.“ 

From Oct. 1 through Nov. 8, Climate Power spent up to $234,136 on Facebook, according to data from Code for Democracy. Most of the ads promote the Build Back Better Act climate programs, highlighting the bill’s positive public polling results and calling on Congress to pass it in order to prevent climate catastrophe. Some of the group’s ads, though, target specific members of Congress with negative messages. 

A slate of ads that Climate Power ran on Facebook and television beginning in September go after six Republican House members from California and Florida for voting against the Build Back Better plan—presumably referring to committee votes—despite the impacts that climate change has had on their constituents. The spots look like political ads, but because they don’t expressly oppose the incumbent candidates’ re-elections, and are not being aired close to an election, Climate Power will not be required to report information to the Federal Election Commission like how much they spent, who was paid, and who provided funding. 

Climate Power said in a press release that it planned to spend seven figures on the ads calling out the House Republicans.

The League of Conservation Voters is a nonprofit organization and is not required to disclose its funders. It was named in 2019 as a recipient of a $3.5 million grant from Majority Forward, a “dark money” operation aligned with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senate Democrats. LCV also receives funding from Center for American Progress Action Fund, which is almost entirely funded by the c(3) Center for American Progress, whose donors include a wide range of corporations, unions, and foundations affiliated with wealthy Democratic donors. The Sierra Club is a c(4) nonprofit that is funded by a mix of left-leaning foundations and wealthy individuals. 

Climate Power’s executive director, Lori Lodes, was chief of staff and deputy director of communications for Hillary for America from March until November 2016. She joined Climate Power after a stint as the director of corporate communications for Apple, according to her LinkedIn profile. 

Opposing the spending plan, a new dark money outfit called Common Sense Leadership Fund spent up to $215,000 on Facebook and $327,000 on Google for anti-Build Back Better ads from Oct. 1 through Nov. 8. The group’s attacks on the reconciliation package don’t follow a common theme, but instead say things like “Washington Liberals want to tax YOUR retirement funds to pay for THEIR new trillion dollar power grab,” “the Democrats want to raise your taxes so they can hire more IRS agents and spy on your cell phone and bank account,” and “Socialists in Washington, D.C. want to inflict more pain on our families and businesses with MASSIVE tax increases.” The ads focus on and are are targeted toward the constituents of Democratic senators Maggie Hassan (N.H.), Catherine Cortez Masto (Nev.), and several House Democrats including Susie Lee (Nev.), Sharice Davids (Kan.), and Elissa Slotkin (Mich.). 

Common Sense Leadership Fund also sent an elaborate mailer to voters in Arizona, targeting Sen. Mark Kelly (D) over allowing Medicare to negotiate prices with drug companies. 

Like Climate Power, Common Sense Leadership Fund will not have to report to the FEC because the spending is not near an election and does not explicitly call for candidates to be defeated, despite being critical of specific politicians who are up for re-election next year.

Common Sense Leadership Fund, which has also run ads on TV and radio, is headed up by Kevin McLaughlin, the former executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee and a former lobbyist from 2017-18 for Build Back Better Act opponent the Business Roundtable, drug company Novartis, Walmart, and other corporate interests. 

In August, McLaughlin told Politico Influence that the group, which was planning to spend multiple millions against the reconciliation bill, was funded by “an anonymous concerned citizen,” but later would not say whether the group had just one donor. 

The third-biggest spender on Facebook ads related to the Build Back Better Act since the beginning of October is the AARP, a group that supports the interests of elderly Americans. Its reconciliation bill-related ads support the provision allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices, which has been the target of some conservative Democrats in Congress who have been heavily funded by the pharmaceutical industry. Behind AARP in Facebook Build Back Better ad spending since Oct. 1 is the Green New Deal Network, a coalition of left-leaning advocacy groups. Many of the network’s ads thank Democrats that support the bill and call on conservative Democrats who oppose it to “stop obstructing,” even though the bill’s climate-related provisions have been heavily stripped back.  

Heritage Action, the nonprofit sister organization of the conservative Heritage Foundation, has spent up to $150,000 on Facebook ads since Oct. 1. Its ads provide people in Democratic districts and states with phone numbers to call their senator or representative and ask them to “reject the reckless $3.5 Trillion tax, borrow, and spending bill.” Americans for Prosperity, a nonprofit that has received extensive funding from Koch family foundations, has run as much as $129,000 worth of Build Back Better-related advertising on Facebook during the same time period, many of which describe the bill as the brainchild of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) or say that increased federal spending will make basic items such as food more expensive due to inflation. 

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