Dark Money’ Groups & Super PACs Target Trump With Multi-Million Dollar Coronavirus Ad Campaign

by Tyler DurdenSun, 03/29/2020

Authored by Anna Massoglia & Tatyana Monnay via OpenSecrets.org,

Fueled by “dark money,” cash-flush liberal groups with ties to the Democratic Party are mobilizing to unleash millions of dollars worth of ads attacking President Donald Trump’s response to coronavirus ahead of the 2020 presidential election

Many political groups avoided attacking Trump as the coronavirus outbreak first began to spread throughout the U.S. But as social distancing and quarantines become the new normal, a number of multi-million dollar ad buys from Democratic groups mark a departure from that strategy. 

Biden Attacks Trump On Coronavirus Response In New Ad

Democratic super PAC Priorities USA Action has spent more than $6 million on a series of negative ads attacking Trump on his response to the coronavirus pandemic. The group plans to spend $150 million contesting swing states before the Democratic National Convention.

One of the ads attacking Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic shows various audio clips of Trump downplaying coronavirus while a graphic shows the increasing cases overtime. The ads are airing in key presidential battleground states such as Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. The ad starts off with a clip of Trump referencing coronavirus as Democrats’ “new hoax.”

Trump’s campaign argued that the hoax claim in the ad is false and issued a “cease and desist” ordering television stations that run the ad to stop if they want to “avoid costly and time-consuming litigation.” 

In response, the super PAC announced Thursday it would spend another $600,000 to air ads in Arizona. The group plans to pour even more money in ads over the coming weeks.

Priorities USA spent more than $81,000 on Facebook ads this week alone on a newly created page called FactsFirst, primarily attacking Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. Another page created in November 2019 has spent more than $132,000 on ads primarily targeting Spanish-speaking users with similar messages paid for by Priorities USA.

Priorities USA’s nonprofit arm plays a key role in the operation, funneling just under $3.4 million to its super PAC in the 2020 election cycle alone. That nonprofit has given six-figure contributions to other big-name Democratic dark money groups such as Majority Forward and VoteVets.

While Priorities USA may be the target of Trump’s lawsuit threats, another mysterious new 501(c)(4) nonprofit called Fellow Americans is also running ads almost identical to the controversial ad campaign paid for by Priorities USA.

Many Google and Facebook ads paid for by Fellow Americans feature disaffected Republicans planning to vote against Trump in the 2020 election. The ads could easily be mistaken for a solely conservative effort at first glance. But Washington, D.C., incorporation records show it formed in November 2019 by Graham Wilson, a partner at Perkins Coie, the political law firm of choice for many Democratic dark money groups — including American Bridge, Priorities USA and Acronym.

Even though the coronavirus outbreak is making it more difficult for some groups to run effective political ads, the message communicated in these ads could still be effective in hurting Trump closer to November and drum up donor support for the super PACs themselves for the general election, according to Kevin Banda, associate professor of political science at Texas Tech University. 

“If people think that an incumbent responded poorly to a natural disaster, that incumbent and the incumbent party gets punished electorally,” Banda said.

Democratic super PAC American Bridge has shelled out almost $6.3 million on ads attacking Trump’s handling of coronavirus since the start of 2020. That makes up the bulk of the group’s $8.5 million in spending against Trump since the start of 2019. In an $850,000 digital ad campaign, American Bridge is airing ads in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan attacking Trump for his past comments downplaying coronavirus, according to the New York Times.

The super PAC has received millions of dollars from the American Bridge 21st Century Foundation, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit that does not disclose its donors and is not supposed to have politics as its primary purpose. Like many super PACs with affiliated dark money groups, American Bridge’s affiliated groups share employees, officers, office space and other expenses.

financial audit analyzed by OpenSecrets shows just under half of the American Bridge nonprofit arm’s spending went to a $3.3 million payment to its super PAC affiliate in 2018 for shared space and other expenses. On top of that, the nonprofit arm owed the super PAC over $1.45 million at the end of the year and it has given the super PAC more than $1.3 million in contributions. IRS rules prohibit the nonprofit from having politics as its primary purpose, which is generally interpreted to mean that less than half of its spending can go to political activities. 

The majority of money comes from 29 anonymous six-figure donors giving up to $800,000 each. American Bridge’s noncash gifts include 450 shares of Baidu, a Chinese technology companywithreportedties to China’s Communist Party, valued at more than $100,000.

Liberal super PAC Pacronym launched a $2.5 million digital ad campaign attacking Trump’s handling of the global pandemic in mid-March. The ads will air on digital platforms including Facebook, YouTube and Hulu, according to the New York Times. The super PAC has raised nearly $8 million in the 2020 election cycle and plans to spend $5 million of that on digital ads by July. 

Pacronym is the super PAC arm of Acronym, a dark money group that brought in almost $1.3 million in contributions from its inception in May 2017 through the end of April 2018, most of that coming from just four six-figure donors. Roughly one in every four dollars raised by Acronym in its first year of operation went to its super PAC, according to OpenSecrets’ analysis of tax records and campaign finance disclosures.

On top of Pacronym’s roughly $1.9 million in spending disclosed to the FEC since 2018, pages tied to Acronym have spent more than $5.9 million on digital advertising according to OpenSecrets’ analysis of Google, Facebook and Snapchat ad data.

Acronym has also bankrolled digital operations seeding an array of “hyperlocal partisan propaganda” pages that mimic local news outlets and launched a political tech company called Shadow Inc. exposed as the secret Iowa caucus app vendor after chaos at the caucuses. Shadow Inc. was paid by both current presidential candidate Joe Biden and former presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg‘s 2020 presidential campaigns, according to FEC disclosures.

A common thread among the groups is the role of liberal dark money powerhouse Sixteen Thirty Fund and its sister 501(c)(3) New Venture Fund. The groups have fiscally sponsored at least 80 groups in a way that leaves almost no paper trail. Sixteen Thirty acts as a pass-through agency funneling millions of dollars in grants from wealthy donors. Acronym and American Bridge have each accepted hundreds of thousands from Sixteen Thirty Fund’s operation while Priorities USA’s foundation arm has given it at least $100,000. 

Unite the Country, a super PAC supporting former vice president Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election, is spending at least $1 million to air a coronavirus-related attack ad on TV news programs across the country.  

So far this cycle, Unite the Country has raised more than $12 million and while most of the super PAC’s donors are disclosed, the identities of some of its biggest financiers remain a mystery.

Biden’s campaign has also released ads criticizing Trump’s handling of coronavirus, but  is spending much less. Traditionally, super PACs function as candidates’ attack dogs, running run negative ads that candidates wouldn’t want to be associated with.

Before the release of these new ads, neither Biden’s sole Democrat rival Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Biden or Trump aired a political ad on television since last Tuesday, according to the New York Times.

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