Corporate Dems’ Rapidly Growing ‘Dark Money’ Arm

Tax documents reveal the group Center Forward received a record $18.8 million in 2021 and spent big to back conservative Democrats who bucked their party on drug pricing reforms.

Corporate Dems’ Rapidly Growing ‘Dark Money’ Arm
Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ) and Rep. Scott Peters (D-CA) walk to a Democratic caucus meeting at the U.S. Capitol on October 01, 2021.

A corporate lobbyist-directed “dark money” group closely affiliated to the Blue Dog Coalition of conservative Democrats saw its revenue nearly double in 2021 from the prior year, according to tax documents reviewed by Sludge.

The Washington D.C.-based Center Forward, formerly known as the Blue Dog Research Forum, serves as an outside support group for the Blue Dogs, providing the conservative Democrats with policy suggestions, polling, campaign ads, and more. In 2021, it had record high revenue of more than $18.8 million, according to its tax return. The amount marked a sharp increase from the group’s 2020 total revenue of $10.6 million and its 2019 total revenue of $5 million.  

As a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization, Center Forward does not publicly disclose its funding sources, but tax documents show that since 2016 it has received at least $6.2 million from drug industry trade association the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA). In 2021, PhRMA gave $1.7 million to the group, which describes its mission as giving “centrist allies the information they need to craft common sense solutions.” Other corporate lobbying groups that have donated to Center Forward in recent years include the Business Roundtable, the National Restaurant Association, and the Federation of American Hospitals. 

Center Forward conducts public opinion polling and publishes reports that typically encourage members of Congress to take policy positions in line with its corporate donors. For example, polling it released this summer on battleground states found that voters are not motivated by lowering prescription drug costs regardless of their political party, directly contradicting the findings of numerous polls by other organizations on the issue. Center Forward also finances retreats several times a year for members of Congress and their staffers, where it organizes meetings and panel events for them to attend with corporate executives and lobbyists. This year, the group treated congressional employees to retreats in Mexico City and an upscale resort in Middleburg, Virginia, and in 2021 it flew staffers to San Francisco and hosted a handful of representatives in Dublin, Ireland. 

In recent election cycles, Center Forward’s super PAC arm has spent millions of dollars on ads opposing Republicans and backing conservative Democrats, especially for Blue Dogs and centrists who sided with the pharmaceutical industry last year in blocking a major legislative proposal to require the government to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies for lower drug prices.

Three corporate lobbyists have been on Center Forward’s board of directors since at least 2015: Cindy Brown and Libby Greer, both partners at bipartisan firm Forbes Tate, and former Democratic House member and co-founder of the Blue Dog Coalition Robert “Bud” Cramer, a lobbyist at the 535 Group. Among Brown and Greer’s dozens of corporate clients are pharmaceutical companies Amgen, Eli Lilly, Merck, Novartis, Sanofi, and more. Those drugmakers are members of PhRMA, which was the third-highest spender in 2021 on federal lobbying. Brown and Greer both also lobby for PhRMA and last year lobbied the House and Senate for the group on Medicare Part D, drug price competition and patent restoration, drug reimportation, and generics, according to Senate records.

Cramer lobbies with a former Center Forward director and his former chief of staff, Jefferies Murray, at the 535 Group, which Murray co-founded in early 2021. The 535 Group’s lobbying clients include the research institute HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, ad-targeting tech platform Meta, and tobacco company Philip Morris International. 

Center Forward’s former Executive Director Cori Kramer, a former chief of staff to multiple centrist House Democrats, received nearly $757,000 in compensation from the organization. In March of this year, Center Forward announced Kramer’s new role as CEO, and Riley Kilburg, the group’s former director of outreach and engagement, was tapped to be executive director.

Kramer and Center Forward did not respond to a request for comment on their organization’s jump in funding.

Ads for Democratic Pharma Allies

One of the key policies that congressional Democrats worked to pass upon taking a thin majority in the Senate was requiring the federal government to negotiate with drug companies to secure lower prices for medications purchased by Medicare. Throughout the 117th Congress, Center Forward spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on ads praising Democrats who broke with their party on the proposal, including Facebook ads thanking them that ran right before and after key votes.  

In June 2021, Center Forward launched a Facebook ad campaign praising conservative Democrats, including up to $33,000 on ads praising Democratic Reps. Kurt Schrader, Scott Peters, and Kathleen Rice. Those three Democrats voted in September 2021 against the proposal, blocking the Energy and Commerce Committee from formally endorsing it. One week after the vote, Center Forward launched another ad campaign and spent up to $55,500 on Facebook ads thanking Peters, Schrader and Rice. Then in the following months, Center Forward spent an additional up to $137,000 on Facebook ads thanking and praising Schrader as he was facing a competitive primary challenge.

The three Democrats who dealt a blow to their party’s drug pricing measure had significant pharmaceutical industry backing. Schrader, a co-chair of the Blue Dog caucus and chair of the group’s PAC, counted the pharmaceuticals and health products industry as his second-highest career donor industry, according to OpenSecrets. Rep. Scott Peters of California has received more than $1.1 million from the pharma industry over his career, according to OpenSecrets, making it his top donor industry. The third, Rep. Kathleen Rice of New York, was a member of the business-friendly New Democrat Coalition who had been appointed to the powerful committee over progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Earlier this year, Rice announced her retirement from Congress.

In total, Center Forward spent up to half a million in 2021 on Facebook ads that praise and thank conservative Democrats. Many of the group’s ads backed prominent Democrats who opposed the drug pricing proposal: Blue Dog Co-Chair Rep. Stephanie Murphy (Fla.), who voted against the legislative package in the Ways and Means Committee, and Rep. Josh Gottheimer (N.J.) and Rep. Lou Correa (Calif.), who signed a May letter of House Democrats pressing that any measures on prescription drugs be bipartisan. Other beneficiaries included Blue Dog Co-Chair Tom O’Halleran (Ariz.) and caucus members Reps. Mikie Sherrill (N.J.), Carolyn Bordeaux (Ga.), and Brad Schneider (Ill.). In early November, as the Democrats’ Build Back Better Act was being teed up for a possible House vote that would send it to the Senate, Center Forward spent up to $50,000 on ads thanking conservative Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, a former Blue Dog who would have been a key vote on the package.

In November 2021, House Democrats passed the Build Back Better Act, which contained a number of provisions aiming to curb the U.S.’ comparatively high drug prices, but the sweeping legislation fell short of passing the Senate, lacking unified support from all 50 Democratic senators. The Democrats’ Inflation Reduction Act, signed into law in August, includes provisions that empower the federal government to negotiate drug prices in Medicare purchasing. But the measure is limited: it only targets a subset of drugs without generic competitors that are covered under Medicare Part D, and the negotiation process doesn’t begin until 2026, giving Big Pharma time to sidestep its price-lowering measures—for example, by introducing their own generics to market. 

Centrist Super PAC

Center Forward’s new high in funding led to new highs in election spending this cycle by its super PAC, the Center Forward Committee, whose treasurer is Murray. Of the $5.8 million the super PAC raised through Nov. 28, at least $2.3 million, or more than 40%, came from Center Forward, according to Federal Election Commission records. The super PAC’s other contributors in the 2021-2022 election cycle include Chevron, which donated $100,000 to it in April 2022, shortly before Center Forward Committee ran an ad campaign for a Democratic candidate in California who is known as an ally of the oil industry, and Michael Bloomberg, who donated $500,000 in October. The Blue Dog Coalition’s PAC also gave $1 million to the Center Forward Committee in 2022.

The super PAC’s more than $6 million of spending in the 2022 cycle was a hefty increase over the $3.5 million it spent in the 2020 cycle, which was more than double the group’s $1.3 million of spending in the 2018 midterms. Center Forward’s largest amount of spending was in the primary race between Schrader and Democratic challenger Jamie McLeod-Skinner. The super PAC spent $650,000 on ads against McLeod-Skinner and $385,000 on ads supporting Schrader. The Center Forward Committee spent over $400,000 against the Republican opponent who faced off against Rep. Kim Schrier of Washington, a member of the Health subcommittee of the Energy and Commerce Committee who co-chaired the New Democrat Coalition’s Health Care Task Force. It also spent $152,500 to support Gottheimer, the Democratic co-chair of the centrist Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group backed by the dark money group No Labels.

Millions to a Healthcare Advocacy Group

Unlike some dark money groups that parcel out grants to dozens of organizations or academic centers, Center Forward’s grant-giving is limited to just one outside group: Consumers for Quality Care (CQC), a 501(c)(4) nonprofit health care advocacy coalition that was formed in 2017 by a trio of Democrats on Capitol Hill.

CQC, which is directed by former House Delegate Donna Christensen (D-U.S.V.I.), is a coalition of patient advocacy groups like the Headache and Migraine Policy Forum and the Global Liver Institute, as well as consumer groups like National Consumers League and Consumer Action. 

The group says its mission is to ensure patients have access to high quality health care. CQC’s research appears regularly in news articles, and media outlets run op-eds by Christensen on health care issues, but readers are never told of the group’s ties to pharmaceutical lobbyists and conservative House Democrats. In its research, CQC frequently points to reducing out-of-pocket health care costs as voters’ top priority, but rarely mentions the high prices that pharmaceutical companies charge for many commonly prescribed drugs. When it has mentioned the rising cost of prescriptions, CQC points to the role of pharmacy benefit managers, an industry that CQC says is highly consolidated, driving up the cost of medications and deserving of greater scrutiny from regulators.

Though its funding sources are not disclosed on its website, CQC is mainly funded by Center Forward. From 2017 through 2021, Center Forward donated a total of $6.7 million to CQC, often making up most of the group’s annual revenue. In 2018, Center Forward’s donation amounted to 80% of CQC’s revenue; in 2019, it made up more than two-thirds; in 2020, more than 90% of its revenue.

Asked about receiving the bulk of its funding from Center Forward, CQC sent an email response: “Working with more than 30 partners, only one of whom is Center Forward, we focus on being a voice for quality health care at prices that Americans can afford, and encourage policymakers to take action to fix the system.”

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