Category Archives: campaign finance

“The FEC, Still Failing to Enforce Campaign Laws, Heads to Capitol Hill”

The latest from the Brennan Center:

Ultimately, any system of rules is only as good as the body that enforces them. Most Americans want strong campaign finance rules, which require an FEC committed to enforcing duly enacted laws in a timely and evenhanded manner. Congress should use the opportunity presented by this oversight hearing to press the FEC to fulfill its statutory mission. And lawmakers should continue to pursue legislative solutions to make the commission work better. 

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“What Ginni Thomas and Leonard Leo wrought: How a justice’s wife and a key activist started a movement”

Very deep dive by Politico’s Heidi Pryzybyla:

At the time, the Citizens United ruling was widely expected, as the court had already signaled its intentions. When it came, it upended nearly 100 years of campaign spending restrictions.

The conservative legal movement seized the moment with greater success than any other group, and the consequences have shaped American jurisprudence and politics in dramatic ways.

From those early discussions among Leo, Thomas and Crow would spring a billion-dollar force that has helped remake the judiciary and overturn longstanding legal precedents on abortion, affirmative action and many other issues. It funded legal scholars to devise theories to challenge liberal precedents, helped to elect state attorneys general willing to apply those theories and launched lavish campaigns for conservative judicial nominees who would cite those theories in their rulings from the bench.

he movement’s triumphs are now visible but its engine remains hidden: A billion-dollar network of groups, most of which are registered as tax-exempt charities or social welfare organizations. Taking advantage of gaps in disclosure laws, they shield the identities of most of their donors and some of the recipients of the funds. Among those who’ve been paid by the groups are leading thinkers and individuals with close personal ties to Leo — including a whopping $7 million to a group run by a close friend and his wife. They also include a for-profit business for which Leo himself is chairman and which received tens of millions of dollars from his nonprofit network.

Leo’s role as the central figure in this movement has long been known, culminating in his acquisition last year of what many believe to be the largest political donation in history. Few are aware of the extent to which the movement’s baby steps were taken in concert with Ginni Thomas.

Two months before the Citizens United decision, but after the justices had signaled their intentions by requesting new arguments, attorney Cleta Mitchell — later to play a role in Donald Trump’s false claims about the 2020 elections — filed papers for Ginni Thomas to create a nonprofit group of a type that ultimately benefited from the decision. Leo was one of two directors listed on a separate application to conduct business in the state of Virginia. Thomas was president. She signed it on New Year’s Eve of 2009, and Crow provided much of the initial cash. A key Leo aide, Sarah Field, would come aboard to help Thomas manage the group, which they called Liberty Central.

After Liberty Central went public, it provoked an outcry over a Supreme Court justice’s wife promoting causes like overturning Obamacare that were before her husband’s court. Leo and Thomas changed gears. His network reactivated a dormant group, the Judicial Education Project, which would go on to become a major supplier of amicus briefs before the nation’s highest court. She created a for-profit consulting business using a similar name — Liberty Consulting — that enabled her to perform consulting work for conservative activist groups.

The Judicial Education Project supplied some of her business: Documents indicate Leo ordered at least one recipient of his groups’ funds, Kellyanne Conway, to make payments to Ginni Thomas for unspecified work, according to a Washington Post story earlier this year.

Now, Liberty Consulting is a focus of interest from congressional committees probing the Supreme Court’s ethics disclosures. Senate Democrats have demanded that Leo and Crow provide a list of “gifts, payments, or other items of value” they’ve given Thomas and her husband.

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“DeSantis Super PAC’s Urgent Plea to Donors: ‘We Need 50 Million Bucks'”


Hours before the Republican Party’s first presidential debate, the chief strategist for the super PAC that has effectively taken over Ron DeSantis’s presidential campaign met with donors in Milwaukee.

“Now let me tell you a secret — don’t leak this,” the strategist, Jeff Roe, told the donors last Wednesday, according to a recording of the meeting reviewed by The New York Times. “We need to do this now. We’re making a move now.”

Then Mr. Roe made a bold sales pitch: “The day after Labor Day we’re launching and we need your help to stay up and go hard the rest of the way. We need 50 million bucks.”

With urgency in his voice, Mr. Roe told the donors he required much of the $50 million in the next month before the second G.O.P. debate on Sept. 27. He said he needed $5 million a month just to sustain his Iowa operations. And he said Mr. DeSantis needed to beat Donald J. Trump in “the next 60 days” and separate from all of his other rivals “now.”

The audio revealed that the people running the DeSantis super PAC, Never Back Down, are placing big bets now in the hope that donors will cover them later. And it underscored just how steep a task the group confronts as it heads into the fall with its candidate far behind Mr. Trump in the polls, a campaign that is low on cash and a growing recognition that a Trump victory in Iowa could accelerate the end of the Republican race.

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“GOP salivates at the biggest campaign finance win since Citizens United”


Republicans have waged a decades-long battle to blow up the campaign-finance laws that rein in big-money spending. Now, they are making a play that could end in their biggest victory since the Citizens United ruling in 2010.

The GOP is growing increasingly optimistic about their prospects in a little-noticed lawsuit that would allow official party committees and candidates to coordinate freely by removing current spending restrictions. If successful, it would represent a seismic shift in how tens of millions of campaign dollars are spent and upend a well-established political ecosystem for TV advertising.

An eventual victory in the lawsuit, filed last November by the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee, would eliminate the need for House and Senate campaign committees of any party to set up separate operations to make so-called independent expenditures to boost candidates with TV ads…

Committees could work in concert with their candidates, opening up millions of party dollars to individual campaigns and allowing party committees to purchase TV air time at the much cheaper rates offered to candidates.

“What they’re trying to do is just pry open another barn door to get very large unlimited contributions toward candidates,” said Tom Moore, a former longtime aide to a Democratic commissioner on the Federal Election Commission who now works for the liberal Center for American Progress. “This is money that they don’t have to raise in small-dollar increments from actual voters.”…

The case currently lies with an Ohio district court judge who only has to determine whether it should be sent to the 6th Circuit for review. That jurist — Judge Douglas Cole, an appointee of then-President Donald Trump — gave Republicans new hope in early August when he ordered a three-month discovery period, something that could indicate the case is on a glide path to the higher court.

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“‘I could sell golf’: How DeSantis and aides courted lobbyists for campaign cash”


When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis took office in 2019, his political team made a list of the state’s top 40 lobbyists and about 100 of their “Suggested Clients to target” for political contributions, according to a fundraising document reviewed by The Washington Post.

Next to the name of each lobbyist was a dollar figure, an “ask” that the DeSantis team hoped they would raise based on their book of clients, whose names were also listed in the document and included large corporations such as Disney and Motorola, as well as sports organizations, billionaires and interest groups with extensive business before the state.

The Florida governor’s fundraisers hoped that nine lobbyists would raise at least $1 million each for DeSantis’s political action committee, the state and the Republican Governors Association, according to the document, which was drafted by Heather Barker, a top DeSantis aide and his primary fundraiser, and shared with others.

o help them haul in large sums of money, the document suggested that lobbyists be allowed to offer their clients certain perks, such as meals and rounds of golf with DeSantis, who loves the sport. DeSantis’s fundraisers envisioned that some golf outings with the governor would net contributions of $75,000 or more, according to other emails among DeSantis’s political advisers.

“I could sell golf for $50k this morning,” Barker wrote to other DeSantis aides in a 2019 email obtained by The Post, noting that a prominent Tallahassee lobbyist and his wife wanted to play golf with the recently elected DeSantis and first lady Casey DeSantis at a course the governor favored. The lobbyist would “get money through a client” to contribute in exchange for golfing with DeSantis, she wrote. It is unclear if the meeting happened. Barker did not respond to a request for comment.

The 2019 document detailed other avenues for securing contributions. “METHODS FOR FIRMS TO DELIVER SUPPORT: Golf, lunch, meetings, dinner, tours, events, etc. — Each have a threshold (ex. Golf $25k per person, which is a deal),” reads the document, whose authenticity was confirmed by multiple people with knowledge of it. Like others interviewed for this story, the people spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.

While it is common for politicians to seek donations from lobbyists, the efforts by DeSantis to effectively auction off his leisure time to those seeking to influence state policy created a special pathway of access for wealthy donors to the governor that is striking in the way that it was documented in writing, ethics experts said. The golf-related fundraising was part of a broader push by DeSantis to cultivate relationships with big contributors, some of whom have received state appointments or benefited from state policies, as The Post has previously reported.

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“Spiraling Legal Bills Threaten Trump With a Cash Crunch”


Donald J. Trump’s legal problems aren’t just piling up — his legal bills are, too.

New financial reports show that the former president’s various political committees and the super PAC backing him have used roughly 30 cents of every dollar spent so far this year on legal-related costs. The total amounts to more than $27 million in legal fees and other investigation-related bills in the first six months of 2023, according to a New York Times analysis of federal records.

That $27 million in legal costs includes Mr. Trump paying at least eight law firms more than $1 million each in the first half of 2023, part of a sizable set of legal billings expected to spiral upward in the coming months as his overlapping criminal cases wind their way toward courtrooms in New York, Florida and Washington, D.C.

The new disclosures revealed the remarkable degree to which Mr. Trump’s political and legal cash are intermingled, much like his own political and legal fate.

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“DeSantis, With a Subtle Maneuver, Hides His Small-Dollar Donations”


When WinRed, the company that processes nearly all online Republican campaign contributions, recently released its enormous trove of donor data for the first half of the year, donations were conspicuously absent for one presidential candidate: Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida.

It was no technical glitch. The DeSantis campaign worked with WinRed in a way that prevented the disclosure of donor information, ensuring that the campaign’s small donors would remain anonymous, according to a person familiar with the campaign.

The arrangement appears to be the first of its kind for a presidential campaign since WinRed’s founding four years ago and could presage a return to an era in which far less information on small donors is made public, at least for Republicans.

Representatives for Mr. DeSantis declined to describe details of the arrangement. The person familiar with the campaign said the aim was to prevent other campaigns from poaching Mr. DeSantis’s donors.

But the move has other effects, including obscuring exactly how many — or how few — online donations Mr. DeSantis has received….

WinRed recently started offering “merchant” accounts, in which the company acts not as a conduit, but as a typical payment processor. Mr. DeSantis’s campaign chose this option, the person familiar with the campaign said, cutting WinRed’s PAC and its disclosure requirements out of the picture.

It appears to be the first time a presidential campaign has opted for this arrangement. The former chief executive of WinRed, Carl Sceusa, is currently the chief financial and chief technology officer of the DeSantis campaign.

The difference in disclosure is vast.

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ELB Book Corner: Mary Zielger: “Abortion and Overcoming Popular Will”

I am pleased to welcome Mary Ziegler to the ELB Book Corner, author of the new book, Dollars for Life: The Anti-Abortion Movement and the Fall of the Republican Establishment (Yale, 2022). Here is the final of three posts:

The antiabortion movement long made the argument echoed in Dobbs: that Roe had short-circuited a process of public deliberation, and that American democracy would be stronger if elected representatives, rather than judges, made decisions about abortion. The Dobbs Court itself stressed this argument in explaining the decision to dismantle the right to choose abortion. For years, some within the movement had suggested that returning the issue to voters would benefit the movement—and not just because federal constitutional challenges would be off the table. From the 1970s onward, some within the movement believed that most Americans would seek to criminalize abortion if they truly understood what it was.

But from the 1960s onward, the antiabortion movement saw the protection of the fetal person as far more important than popular politics. That made campaign finance rules more important: if the abortion fight was about who exercised power, rather than about what voters wanted, then campaign spending could give a movement with an unpopular position a much-needed edge.

By the 2010s, antiabortion groups had tied their campaign finance work to efforts to what they framed as ballot integrity work. Bopp, the general counsel of the National Right to Life Committee, worked with Judicial Watch and attorneys like Cleta Mitchell to devise strategies to make it harder to vote; antiabortion attorneys drafted and defended voter ID laws. Bopp became general counsel for True the Vote, defending the group in court and challenging early and mail-in-balloting schemes in the lead-up to the 2020 election.

After the January 6th attack, movement leaders only redoubled this work. The Susan B. Anthony List and Family Research Council launched a project to limit early and mail-in balloting. The Thomas More Society invested in the Amistad Project, which had sought to overturn the 2020 election and more recently championed the independent state legislature theory.

The movement’s involvement with voting and campaign finance in part reflects broader changes to the Republican Party. Deepening political polarization and negative and affective partisanship, along with the rise of conservative media, had fueled the emergence of populist candidates interested in catering to the base, while using tools like gerrymandering to make it harder for others to vote.

But antiabortion leaders had their own reason for devising strategies to make it harder for voters to register their views on reproductive rights. Polls after Citizens United and Dobbs showed that voters were still against sweeping bans—if anything, in states where criminal laws were in force, opposition only hardened. The result of ballot initiatives confirmed that voters might not be friendly to the movement’s strategies (the abortion-rights side prevailed in six of six initiatives in 2022).

The story in Dollars for Life is about a movement seeking to change the law and broader society without changing hearts and minds. That process is ongoing: in Ohio, lawmakers are experimenting with a strategy to make it harder for voters to approve ballot initiatives; Republicans in other states have also considered steps to make it harder for voters to put abortion on the ballot.

That story also has important lessons for those seeking to reverse Dobbs. The antiabortion movement had a clever litigation strategy and tremendous patience, but by the 1990s, the movement’s savviest players understood that it might never win unless there were broader changes to the way elections worked and the way the Supreme Court as an institution functioned. Over the past half century, the abortion struggle has become a battle about not just reproductive rights but voting rights and campaign finance. And just as smart lawyering would never have been enough to get rid of Roe, much more will be needed to undo Dobbs.

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ELB Book Corner: Mary Zielger: “Transforming the Republican Party”

I am pleased to welcome Mary Ziegler to the ELB Book Corner, author of the new book, Dollars for Life: The Anti-Abortion Movement and the Fall of the Republican Establishment (Yale, 2022). Here is the second of three posts:

The consensus view of political scientists and historians for some time had been that the GOP had said all the right things when it came to abortion but used very little political capital on the issue, when it came to judicial nominations, federal legislation, or executive orders. That was how antiabortion lawyers understood the lay of the land after Casey. Lawyers for groups like the National Right to Life Committee believed that Republican presidents preferred to pick the justices who would be the most easily confirmed—and ultimately made decisions to maximize their own electability.

This kind of justice, in turn, would be more likely to worry about the institutional legitimacy of the Court, or about her own legacy. These kinds of considerations might lead to hesitation when the moment came to consider the reversal of Roe. To get Roe reversed, antiabortion lawyers believed in the 1990s, would require justices who cared less about public opinion and were indifferent to backlash. That, in turn, seemed to require a very different kind of Republican leadership.

For the moment, it seemed that Republican leaders prized electable candidates, at least in national elections. Antiabortion leaders pointed as an example to the 1996 campaign of Pat Buchanan, a kind of proto-Trump who railed against working women, called for the criminalization of abortion, and waved a literal pitchfork. Republican primary voters had adored Buchanan early in the 1996 election season, especially compared to Bob Dole, the dull and dour senator from Kansas, but many in the GOP feared that Buchanan was too extreme for general election voters, and major donors and party leaders managed to bury Buchanan’s candidacy in a mountain of soft money. For the leaders of groups like the National Right to Life Committee, the key was to find a way to ensure the success of the next Pat Buchanan—and to counterbalance the financial muscle of traditional party leaders.

Most simply, focusing on campaign finance might make it easier for Republicans—who historically outraised the competition—to win elections and cast votes against abortion. But the movement’s vision for campaign finance was more complex. Becoming adept at circumventing existing rules—or helping to lead the charge to gut them in Congress or court—could make the antiabortion movement seem to be a more valuable political partner. Well before Roe, Americans strongly opposed the kind of outright ban preferred by most in the antiabortion movement, and at various points in the past, that made partnering with the movement seem to be a political liability. Becoming a major player in the world of campaign finance could give ambivalent Republicans a reason to stick with the antiabortion movement.

Over time, in the lead-up to and aftermath of major decisions like Citizens United and SpeechNow, the campaign finance struggle served an additional aim: creating opportunities for outside spending groups, like nonprofits and super PACs. Of course, traditional party leaders could (and did) form their own such groups (Karl Rove, perhaps the ultimate establishment figure, created one of the most famous early super PACs). But it would be harder for the pro-electability party insiders to control outside spending groups. That might make it easier for conservative movements to have more of a say—and to save the next Pat Buchanan.

All of this did not solve the movement’s problems. A politician like Pat Buchanan might take the right positions on abortion, and might answer to grassroots conservatives. But there was a reason Republican leaders had not wanted to see someone like Buchanan at the top of the ticket: he would lose. To reverse Roe, then, the movement had to find a way to exercise power when its ultimate goal remained deeply unpopular.

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Arizona: “Petersen and Toma in court filing aim to quash Prop 211”

Capitol Media Services:

With efforts by one set of foes already rebuffed, the state’s top Republican lawmakers are making their own bid to quash a new state law designed to shine a light on “dark money.”

In a new court filing, Senate President Warren Petersen and House Speaker Ben Toma contend that Proposition 211 infringes on the constitutional right of the Legislature to make laws. Now they want Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Frank Moskowitz to override what voters approved just last year.

The new litigation comes less than two months after a different Maricopa judge tossed out a challenge filed by the Arizona Free Enterprise Club and the Center for Arizona Policy. Scott McCoy rejected their claims that the requirements of the law to disclose the true identity of those who spend money to affect candidate races and ballot measures violates the rights of donors.

A separate challenge is pending in federal court where Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group founded by the Koch brothers, contends Proposition 211 results in “government doxxing” of those who contribute to political groups. No ruling has been made in that case.

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ELB Book Corner: Mary Zielger:  “A New Look at the Path to Dobbs”

I am pleased to welcome Mary Ziegler to the ELB Book Corner, author of the new book, Dollars for Life: The Anti-Abortion Movement and the Fall of the Republican Establishment (Yale, 2022). Here is the first of three posts:

Since the decision of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, commentators have tried to explain how the conservative legal movement and antiabortion movement achieved such a tremendous victory—and in the face of consistent public support for abortion rights. In recent months, progressives have spotlighted the incremental litigation campaign developed by the antiabortion movement.

For the past fifty years, the antiabortion movement’s underlying goal remained sweeping: not just the reversal of Roe but the recognition of fetal personhood and the creation of a national ban on abortion. But the campaign to reverse Roe proceeded more gradually, centering on comparably modest restrictions and defending them as consistent with Roe. In this way, the movement sought to hollow Roe out and make it easier to overrule.

There is already parallel campaign to reverse Dobbs. Reproductive rights litigators are seeking limited victories in state court, focusing on state constitutional rights to avert death, for example, or access the procedure in cases of rape or incest. This campaign has already created an important platform for the stories of women and other pregnant people living in states where abortion is a crime. State supreme courts, even in conservative states, have recognized limited rights. Incrementalism, it seems, may be working.

As the current fight against Dobbs suggests, the history of the quest to reverse Roe has ongoing importance, and focusing on the antiabortion movement’s litigation strategy tells less than half the story. Abortion opponents developed this litigation strategy in the 1970s, and aligned with the Republican Party in the early 1980s, but neither strategy yielded much in the way of results until decades later. In truth, the reversal of Roe had as much to do with changes to the way Americans vote and spend in elections, as I argue in Dollars for Life, a book recently published by Yale University Press.

The book draws on extensive archival research, including exclusive access to the archive of James Bopp Jr., a prominent figure in struggles over campaign finance and abortion. The book began when I was working on a previous project and kept encountering material on campaign finance in the archives of antiabortion organizations. These finds did not at first make much sense: antiabortion groups had comparably fewer resources and did not stand to benefit more than most interest groups if more money was funneled into federal elections (if anything, groups supportive of abortion rights, like Planned Parenthood, have customarily outraised and spent their opponents on the right). There were obvious antiabortion figures in the history of campaign finance litigation: Senator James Buckley, the brother of the conservative commentator William F. Buckley, was not just a part of Buckley v. Valeo but also the champion of an antiabortion constitutional amendment. One of the Supreme Court’s early decisions on campaign finance and ideological nonprofits, Massachusetts Citizens for Life v. Federal Election Commission, involved part of the movement. But there seemed to be no reason that the antiabortion movement would take a deeper interest in money in politics.

The more deeply I researched, though, the clearer it became that many within the movement had come to realize that an incremental litigation campaign was not enough. Immediately after Roe, antiabortion lawyers had prioritized a constitutional amendment, and when that failed, even with a Republican in the White House and the GOP controlling both house of Congress, the movement developed a new focus: the reversal of Roe. Antiabortion lawyers worked to get Republicans elected, and to lobby the GOP to confirm judges who would reverse Roe. But in 1992, three Republican-nominated justices voted to save Roe in Planned Parenthood v. Casey. As the movement considered what had gone wrong, its leaders suggested that abortion opponents did not have enough influence in either the federal judiciary or the Republican Party. Whatever the solution was, movement leaders argued, would have to do with campaign finance.

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“After Paying Lawyers, Trump’s PAC Is Nearly Broke”


Former President Donald J. Trump’s political action committee, which began last year with $105 million, now has less than $4 million left in its account after paying tens of millions of dollars in legal fees for Mr. Trump and his associates.

The dwindling cash reserves in Mr. Trump’s PAC, called Save America, have fallen to such levels that the group has made the highly unusual request of a $60 million refund of a donation it had previously sent to a pro-Trump super PAC. This money had been intended for television commercials to help Mr. Trump’s candidacy, but as he is the dominant front-runner for the Republican nomination in 2024, his most immediate problems appear to be legal, not political.

The super PAC, which is called Make America Great Again Inc., has already sent back $12.25 million to the group paying Mr. Trump’s legal bills, according to federal records — a sum nearly as large as the $13.1 million the super PAC raised from donors in the first half of 2023. Those donations included $1 million from the father of his son-in-law, Charles Kushner, whom Mr. Trump pardoned for federal crimes in his final days as president, and $100,000 from a candidate seeking Mr. Trump’s endorsement.

The extraordinary shift of money from the super PAC to Mr. Trump’s political committee, described in federal campaign filings as a refund, is believed to be larger than any other refund on record in the history of federal campaigns.

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