Now Is the Time for Democrats to Ban Dark Money From Primaries

Big money—increasingly laundered through independent groups that do not disclose their donors—is corrupting our politics. In this election season alone, the Wesleyan Media Project reports, nearly 60 percent of the ads aired in Democratic House primaries were purchased by groups that offered only partial disclosure of their donors—or none at all. Progressive challengers in contested primaries were often the leading targets of these dark money groups.

Democrats have long condemned the Big Money corruption of our politics—but reforms passed by the House of Representatives have repeatedly been torpedoed by Republican filibusters in the Senate. This month, however, Democrats could—if they choose—crack down on dark money poisoning their own primaries. And small-d democrats across the country should join in calling for them to act. Since the courts treat the Democratic National Committee and the party essentially as a club with free association rights, the party can make and enforce its own rules for how its candidates are selected—without the need for Republican cooperation. A resolution introduced by Judith Whitmer, chair of the Nevada Democratic Party—along with 33 of her fellow DNC members—calls on the party to “ban the use of ‘dark money’ funding during any and all Democratic primary elections.” DNC Resolution 19 also calls for mechanisms to investigate the use of dark money, explore possible disciplinary action, and empower states to set rules in their primaries to ensure transparency.

As Democrats from Joe Biden on down have argued, campaign finance reform is long overdue. This primary season has dramatized just how corrupt and corrosive the current system is.

Perhaps the most egregious example has been provided by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee—AIPAC—and its various independent expenditure fronts. Republican megadonors Bernie Marcus and Paul Singer gave one of AIPAC’s fronts, the United Democracy Project, $1 million apiece prior to the Democratic primaries. UDP then boasted about the millions it spent to target progressive Democratic candidates—primarily progressive women of color.

Throwing over $2.7 million of largely Republican donor money into negative ads against Summer Lee, a progressive champion in Pennsylvania, the UDP had the chutzpah to accuse her of not being “a real Democrat.” Lee, the overwhelming favorite before the UDP waded in, barely survived the onslaught. But other progressives that AIPAC targeted—including Jennifer Cisneros in Texas, Nina Turner in Ohio, Donna Edwards in Maryland—went down to defeat in the face of literally millions in negative ads by the UDP alone.

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