The Washington Post delves deeply into a dark-money, putatively non-partisan nonprofit, the American Culture Project, that is spending heavily on social media in swing states with a message aimed at luring middle-of-the-road voters to the Republican voter column.
One example is in critical Ohio.
Titled Arise Ohio, the Facebook page is the creation of the American Culture Project — a nonprofit whose website says its mission is to “empower Americans with the tools and information necessary to make their voices heard in their local communities, statehouses and beyond.”
Undisclosed on the Facebook page is the nonprofit’s partisan goal. Arise Ohio and similar sites aimed at other politically pivotal states are part of a novel strategy by a little-known, Republican-aligned group to make today’s GOP more palatable to moderate voters ahead of the 2022 midterms by reshaping the “cultural narrative” on hot-button issues.
That goal, laid out in a private fundraising appeal sent last month to a Republican donor and reviewed by The Washington Post, relies on building new online communities that can be tapped at election time, with a focus on winning back Congress in 2022.
The article has an Arkansas angle. It’s not critical to the larger story except that it was a key source for the story. The Arkansas angle primarily illustrates what Willie Sutton once said about bank robbery — you go where the money is. It concerned a solicitation for money by the group for “a persuasion machine that allows conservatives to reach, engage and move people to action like never before.”
The solicitation was sent to Warren Stephens, a billionaire banker based in Arkansas who backed President Donald Trump’s reelection effort. It was also inadvertently directed to someone who shared the communications with The Post. The documents provide an unusual glimpse into the inner workings of a group whose activities are ordinarily veiled and illustrate how the Republican Party, still largely defined by Trump, is straining to connect with the country’s political center.
Stephens, through a spokesman, declined to say whether he had made a contribution to the project.
Why Stephens? Well, here’s millions in his giving to federal campaigns, compiled by Open Secrets. Here’s his generous giving to state races, compiled by Follow the Money.
Dark money contributions? Who knows how much? Here’s just one example, through an organization not directly linked to Stephens, as reported by the Guardian.
This new effort is yet another example of the work of tax-privileged 501(c)(4) organizations that need not disclose specific donors. They may spend unlimited amounts on political activities. Even if they focus only on issues and not candidates, as this organization says it does, it is increasingly a distinction without a difference.
The organization plans a huge expansion for marketing, research, polling and messaging with an expansion into many states.
The arrangement illustrates why politically aligned nonprofits have proliferated, and why they pose such a challenge to the Internal Revenue Service, said David Pozen, a professor of constitutional law and an expert in nonprofit law at Columbia University.
Intensifying partisanship, Pozen said, has all but eliminated the distinction between issue advocacy and campaign activity. “In a world of intense ideological polarization where the two main parties have almost no overlap on any significant policy issue, issue advocacy will necessarily be a kind of partisan activity,” he said. “There is no daylight.”
We’ve seen these nonprofits in action in Arkansas. The Koch organization helped flip the Arkansas Senate to Republican control (though a black man with a funny name was critical, too.)
Dark money groups played in races for attorney general and Supreme Court, relying on messages that played to tribal views, if not specific partisan references.
COINCIDENTALLY: In this Arkansas legislative session, a Koch organization alumnus, Republican Rep. David Ray of Maumelle, has backed two bills to benefit 501(c)(4) groups. One would let Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin pour his million-dollar surplus from an aborted run for governor into a 501(c)(4). Another would protect the records of such organizations from disclosure by state agencies.