MADISON, Wis. – When the left-wing Center for Media & Democracy, a “dark money” scold, was found to have profited by anonymous donors, CMD’s executive director Lisa Graves summed up the hypocrisy of the left: She insisted liberal dark money is different than conservative dark money.
The Middleton liberal, who desperately wants to win back the seat he lost to conservative Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, in 2010, has made a 180-degree turn on his principles in his pursuit of power.
The godfather of campaign finance reform and previous eschewer of so-called dark money groups is now palling around with the League of Conservation Voters and other liberal organizations that do not disclose their funding sources.
Last month, Feingold held a rally with the League, an environmental activist group that has used its powerful dark money arm to pay for attack ads against Johnson.
As the Center for Public Integrity noted in 2013, the League is “fast becoming one of the nation’s strongest ‘dark money’ forces.”
The group spent a record $36 million in 2012, and about $15 million – more than 40 percent – came in the form of “direct and indirect political campaign activities,” according to the Center.
But while Feingold stands with the League of Conservation Voters this campaign year, it would seem to be the kind of group the liberal politician has vehemently criticized in days long past. In 2011, Feingold said, “Democrats shouldn’t be in the game of influencing elections with anonymous, unlimited money. It’s dancing with the devil.”
The rules, at least for Captain Campaign Finance Reform, have changed.
Feingold has abandoned his long-standing pledge not to take piles of money from out-of-state donors. At last check, the candidate had raked in some 70 percent of his campaign cash from contributors outside Wisconsin.
At the same time, Feingold has attacked Johnson for not signing his so-called “Badger Pledge” in which the campaigns would bar super political action committees from the race.
But there’s a lot of special-interest money supporting each side in this critical Senate contest.
Feingold, as of last month, had effectively condoned at least $2 million in issue advocacy by six separate left-wing groups with dark money ties, according to spending records.
Of those groups, all of them have either run ads in Wisconsin without disclosing donors or have affiliated dark money arms.
The Environmental Defense Action Fund has spent more than $1.6 million on ads attacking Johnson. It has a PAC, which discloses its donors, and a 501(c)(4), which does not. The group leaned on its dark money arm to pick up the tab.
VoteVets.Org, also a 501(c)(4), has run ads accusing Johnson of ignoring whistleblower warnings at the scandal-plagued Tomah Veterans Affairs Medical Center. The group attempted to counter ads by a conservative issue advocacy group that hammered Feingold for failing to do anything with memos marked “hand-delivered” to his office detailing the problems at Tomah.
VoteVets does not disclose its donors, but IRS filings show it is substantially funded by far-left environmental groups.
The VoteVets Action Fund boasts that it has run “over 51 commercials and radio spots in 32 states advocating the support of our friends,” and “Aired over $22 million in television and radio ads, advocating re-election for allies and urging defeat of those who do not support troops and veterans.”
NARAL Pro-Choice America also paid for ads hitting Johnson. Its dark money wing paid for the ads, although it also runs a political action committee that discloses its funding sources.
Planned Parenthood Action Fund was involved in the attack ad. The group, too, operates a PAC and a 501(C)(4). It’s not clear which entity financed the ad.
Hillary Clinton front group American Bridge 21st Century also has spent money on issue ads in the race. The group is not a dark money organization, but is affiliated with American Bridge 21st Century Foundation, which does not disclose its donors.
It’s important to point out that there is nothing illegal about educational organizations not disclosing the names of their donors. They have every right to keep such information private.
But the left and its leading spokesman on the issue, Feingold, have campaigned heavily on the dark money narrative – and they have benefited handsomely from the same kind of advocacy cash while denigrating conservatives for doing the same.
Feingold’s campaign has not returned multiple requests seeking comment.
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