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.

Spending by national party committees and outside groups on state judicial races, previously lower-budget affairs, has exploded in recent years. State court election spending reached a record high in the 2019-2020 elections, totaling $97 million, according to the nonpartisan policy center Brennan Center for Justice. State judicial campaign ads in North Carolina, Illinois, Montana, Ohio, and others facing legal challenges over abortion access and gerrymandering are being tracked by the Brennan Center’s “Buying Time” resource.

“The spotlight is on these courts in a way there hasn’t been before because of the recognition of how important state supreme courts are, at a moment when the U.S. Supreme Court is withdrawing from protecting certain rights and safeguarding democratic institutions,” said Douglas Keith, counsel in the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. “The decision in Dobbs made clear that state supreme courts are going to have the final word as to whether there is abortion access. The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on redistricting made clear they won’t find that partisan gerrymandering violates the U.S. Constitution, so it will be up to state courts. State courts are much more likely to decide high-profile, politically-charged cases.”

The Concord Fund is a nonprofit used by Leo, former Executive Vice President of the conservative legal group the Federalist Society, to raise money from anonymous donors. For decades, Leo has orchestrated a network of opaque groups working to push the judicial branch to the right, with goals such as restricting access to reproductive health care. During the 2016 campaign, Leo promoted to Donald Trump a list of Supreme Court candidates closely tied to the Federalist Society that included both Amy Coney Barrett and Brett Kavanaugh. This summer, records surfaced of a historic $1.6 billion donation to Leo’s network from secretive businessman Barre Seid.

Some of the RSLC’s corporate donors in the third quarter of this year included tobacco companies Reynolds American and Altria, Dominion Energy, Chevron, and pharmaceutical industry trade association PhRMA. Koch Industries gave $250,000 in the third quarter and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has given $1 million so far this year to the RSLC, on top of giving it more than half a million dollars in 2021.

“We’re seeing ads, from the right in particular, similar to ads we’ve seen in recent judicial election cycles, that attack judges for being soft on crime or exploit some decision in a judge’s past and accuse them,” said Keith. “The funders probably don’t care about criminal justice in any way, but they know they’re a way of getting voters’ attention. Research shows they get not just voters’ attention, but judges’ attention, and lead them to rule more harshly in election years because they’re afraid of being portrayed as soft on crime.” 

Some Republican megadonors contributing to the RSLC this year include billionaire hedge fund founders Ken Griffin and Dan Loeb, Trump-backing poultry magnate Ron Cameron, and members of the DeVos family that co-founded Amway.

Another conservative group, Fair Courts America, had been circulating a proposal to raise a whopping $22.5 million to deploy in state court races this year—though with just over a week to go before the midterm elections, its actual spending plans are unknown. The group operates as a subsidiary of Restoration PAC, a network of groups that are funded by Republican megadonor Richard Uihlein and chaired by Doug Truax, an Illinois Republican.

The RSLC has booked more than $2 million in ads targeting the Supreme Court race in Ohio, a state where Republicans have repeatedly ignored rulings from the high court around partisan gerrymandering. The Republican-drawn districts, ruled unconstitutional, are in effect for this year’s election in the Buckeye State, despite voters’ efforts to ensure fairness in drawing boundary lines. In 2015, Ohio voters overwhelmingly approved a measure to reform the state’s redistricting process, with 71.5% of the vote; in 2018, Ohio voters similarly passed a measure, by 74.9%, that sought to protect against partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts.

The RSLC recently announced a $500,000 ad buy in Montana’s hotly contested Supreme Court race, pushing spending in the contests there to record highs. In one of the two races for a seat on the Montana Supreme Court this year, Republican Public Service Commission Chair James Brown is challenging Justice Ingrid Gustafson. While Montana’s government is controlled by Republicans, a 1999 state Supreme Court ruling legalizes access to abortion under the state’s right to privacy. Prominent anti-choice Montana elected officials, including Gov. Greg Gianforte and Attorney General Austin Knudsen, have endorsed Brown in the ostensibly nonpartisan race, as has the state Republican Party. Progressive groups have said in their fundraising efforts that re-electing Gustafson is critical for protecting abortion access in the state.

Nationwide, spending on state-level races in this year’s midterms is projected to exceed $7 billion, according to OpenSecrets, surpassing the total spent in the 2018 contests.

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