Leonard Leo’s ‘Dark Money’ Group Donates Millions to Back Republican State Campaigns

An opaque conservative group closely linked with Trump legal adviser Leonard Leo donated nearly $2 million to the Republican State Leadership Committee last quarter.

Leonard Leo’s ‘Dark Money’ Group Donates Millions to Back Republican State Campaigns
The Old Supreme Court at the Montana State Capitol building. Two seats on the Montana Supreme Court are up for election this year.

A “dark money” group tied to Donald Trump’s judicial adviser Leonard Leo made a pair of donations totaling $1.85 million in September to the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC), according to new IRS filings. The donations came as the RSLC began ramping up its ad spending in state court races that will be crucial for determining access to abortion care, ruling on gerrymandering cases, and other issues.

The Concord Fund, a nonprofit that does not publicly disclose its funders and is closely linked with Federalist Society co-chair Leo, also donated $1 million to the RSLC in 2021. Its donations through the third quarter of this year mark a step up from the 2019-2020 election cycle, when the group, which was called the Judicial Crisis Network until February 2020, donated $1.6 million to the RSLC. 

The RSLC, the state campaign arm of the Republican Party, has spent more than any other group to support conservative state judicial candidates in recent election cycles. Earlier this year, it pledged to hit new spending highs in state court races this cycle, and it recently announced it broke its per-cycle fundraising record. In addition to state judges, the RSLC backs candidates for state legislature seats, secretary of state, and other down-ballot positions. In the first three quarters of this year, the RSLC reported raising nearly $33.9 million in its IRS disclosures, and last year it took in more than $26.4 million. 

One of the RSLC’s strategies for influencing judicial contests has been to unload last-minute ad barrages that play up grisly themes, with ads often purchased by its affiliate the Judicial Fairness Initiative or by funneling money to pop-up committees. For example, in North Carolina, where two state Supreme Court seats are up for election on Nov. 8, television watchers are being shown an ad where, after a dramatic “Breaking News” graphic, a voiceover says that two Democratic candidates for the state Supreme Court are “not protecting our children.” While the spot looks like a local TV news segment, a tiny disclosure at the end says it is sponsored by a PAC named Stop Liberal Judges. 

Stop Liberal Judges was formed just one month ago and is led by Lawrence J. Shaheen, a conservative North Carolina attorney. Though it’s a new and unknown group, Stop Liberal Judge’s funding can be traced back to an RSLC-funded organization. On Oct. 25, Stop Liberal Judges received a contribution of $850,000 from Citizens for a Better North Carolina, just days after that group received at least $3.6 million from a group called the Good Government Coalition (GGC), according to records compiled by True North Research. From July to September of this year, GGC received more than $2.8 million from the RSLC.