Dark money: Despite $4 billion spent, midterms hinge on hidden funding – by Ben Piven October 31, 2014 5:00AM ET

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Ten years ago, it was 527 groups and Pioneer bundlers for George W. Bush. In 2008, Barack Obama took the nation’s top office by storm as soft money ruled. Last election cycle, super PACs were all the rage. In 2014, campaign finance reform has given way to dark money, with unknown sources of indirect campaign spending dropping hundreds of millions of dollars to influence federal races.

“Who are these people, and what do they want with the state’s Senate race? Who are these interests, and what is motivating them?” asked Sheila Krumholz, director of the Center of Responsive Politics, in reference to the burgeoning political fundraising tactic.

Dark money, about $200 million of which has been spent nationally this election cycle, is secretive money generated by nonprofit organizations whose primary purposes are not legally considered “political”.

“We can see where the money comes from going to the candidates’ campaigns and going to some of the outside groups,” Krumholz said. “But for politically active nonprofits, we have absolutely no idea who’s bankrolling their efforts.” She blamed anonymous donors for giving voters “inaccurate, misleading and deceptive information to make up their minds.”

The North Carolina Senate race between incumbent Democrat Kay Hagan and Republican challenger Thom Tillis has set records for out-of-state funding: $75 million as of Oct. 30. The candidates combined have raised only half as much as outsiders have dished out, and the total race spending exceeds $107 million.

Over $20 million of the outside money has been spent attacking Tillis – more than on opposing any other candidate nationally. Hagan has benefited from the Senate Majority PAC and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the two largest contributors. But much of the money spent against Hagan, who carries a slight lead, is not reported to the Federal Election Commission (FEC), and so it cannot be tracked precisely. However, there is somewhat of a paper trail for broadcast negative ads.

Not far behind the North Carolina face-off are close Senate contests in Iowa, where Republican Joni Ernst is polling just ahead of Bruce Braley for an open seat, and Colorado, where Democratic Sen. Mark Udall is fending off a challenge from Republican Rep. Cory Gardner. Outside spending makes up more than two-thirds of overall funds used to influence both outcomes.

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Outside Cash Floods North Carolina Judicial Race – Eleanor Clift 05.04.14

Mary F. Calvert/MCT/Landov

marquee Senate race pitting Democrat Kay Hagan against whichever Republican emerges from next Tuesday’s crowded primary is getting all the attention in North Carolina, boosting voter interest and turnout. At the same time, significant sums of money, totaling $1 million at last count, are flowing into the state to affect the outcome of a judicial primary, “usually a pretty sleepy enterprise,” says Bert Brandenburg, executive director of Justice at Stake, a nonpartisan group that monitors judicial elections.

Money buys airtime, and across North Carolina on 10 stations, incumbent state Supreme Court Justice Robin Hudson, a Democrat, is labeled in a television ad “not tough on child molesters.” That’s based on her dissent in a narrowly decided 4-3 ruling that said satellite monitoring of some sex offenders was not a new punishment, which would be unconstitutional, even though it did not exist at the time of their offense.

“This is a way of trying to bully the bench,” says Brandenburg. “Nasty campaign ads send a message to judges that as they make rulings on controversial cases, they may get ads against them down the line, and that’s not what they should be thinking about. They’re supposed to focus on facts and the law.”

Now North Carolina is ground zero in the partisan battles, but just a few years ago, the state was working hard to insulate judges from the onslaught of cash that many see as distorting democracy. It was the first in the nation to try public financing in judicial races, saying candidates shouldn’t have to spend all their time raising money, especially Supreme Court judges.

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