Dark Money Impact: Winning PA-01 in 2018

Contributed by Kierstyn Pietrowski Zolfo.

The next SpringBoard event will focus on the role of dark money in our political system. While people may have different conceptions of what dark money means, for the purposes of this exploration it refers to any political donations that are made to groups – political action committees (PACs and SuperPACs) and so-called, “social welfare organizations,” also known as 501(c)(4) group, who are allowed to engage in political lobbying and political campaign activities.

Of particular concern to our area is the part that dark money played in the 2018 election in PA-01 and the re-election of Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick. The PA-01 congressional race was among the top 5 most expensive House races in the country for 2018, and while some of that can be attributed to direct spending by Democratic candidate, even more of that came from dark money on the GOP side.

Many politicians have their own PACs that are affiliated with their name and candidacy. Such groups raise money by holding events with the politicians present and giving speeches about their political goals… but then they step out of the room while the money folks gather up the donations.  One such event was held on Washington Crossing Road in October 2018, with then-House Speaker Paul Ryan present to fundraise for his PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund (CLF). The CLF opened their district office in Bucks County in September 2017 to prepare for the 2018 race. By the end of the campaign cycle, the CLF had spent over $4.4 million – that we know of – to support Brian Fitzpatrick.

While Paul Ryan’s PAC was the largest of the candidate-affiliated groups to pour money into PA-01, it certainly was not the only one spending money in Bucks County. The Great America Committee (VP Mike Pence), Majority Committee (then-House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy), Eye of the Tiger PAC (then Majority Whip Steve Scalise) and Citizens for Prosperity (Sen. Pat Toomey) were among nearly a dozen groups to spend on this race in 2018.

Another way that dark money was funnelled into this race was from millionaire backers. Two individuals in particular played outsize roles in bringing dark money into PA-01: Elliott Broidy and Sheldon Adelson.  Both of these men used the intricacies of campaign finance law to pour outside money into our area to help Brian Fitzpatrick, but each did so in different ways.

Sheldon Adelson concentrated his efforts on giving directly to PACs.  A review of his expenditures during the 2018 cycle show a shocking amount of money changed hands. This is just a sampling of his donations as reported on Open Secrets, some of which found its way here.

Recipient Date Amount
Congressional Leadership Fund 05/03/18 $15,000,000
Congressional Leadership Fund 09/12/18 $10,000,000
National Republican Congressional Committee 06/30/18 $237,300
Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) 10/16/18 $125,000

Adelson also gave directly to Fitzpatrick’s campaign, and a number of smaller donations to many of the politician-affiliated PACs, who in turn gave to Fitzpatrick.

Elliott Broidy has a name that may be familiar to those of you who closely follow Trump news.  He is the third client of Michael Cohen (the other two being President Trump and Fox News host Sean Hannity). This former Finance Chairman of the Republican National Committee paid a Playboy Playmate mistress to have an abortion, has major financial ties to Manafort-aide Rick Gates, and most recently had his house raided by the FBI in an investigation about conspiracy, money laundering, and covert lobbying on behalf of foreign officials.

Broidy orchestrated the first round of attacks on Democratic candidate Scott Wallace in June 2018.  Wallace was ‘welcomed’ into the general race with over a half million dollars in RJC advertisements smearing Wallace unjustly as an anti-Semite. That set the tone for the race, but since it was done by an outside expenditure group on behalf of Fitzpatrick, instead of from Fitzpatrick himself, the candidate was able to claim plausible deniability from this awfulness. It should also be noted that Broidy donated to many of the same PACs that received funding from Adelson, who in turn spent money in PA-01.

With PA-01 as one of the most contentious swing districts in the country, and with our location in an expensive media market, we are going to see more and more dark money and outside money coming in to affect our local races. We need to stay on top of this issue, and develop effective messaging strategies to counteract the effect of all this outside money, or else we will be overpowered in future races.

Call to Action: Mark your calendars for the next Springboard event on Dark Money and be sure to attend! June 3, 2019 – Location TBD

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