Inside the Koch-Backed Effort to Block the Largest Election-Reform Bill in Half a Century

On a leaked conference call, leaders of dark-money groups and an aide to Mitch McConnell expressed frustration with the popularity of the legislation—even among Republican voters.

By Jane Meyer

Charles Koch speaking to an interviewer.
H.R. 1 would stem the flow of dark money from such political donors as the billionaire oil magnate Charles Koch. Photograph from Axios on HBO / ZUMA / Alamy

Audio: The presentation by Kyle McKenzie, the research director for the Koch-run advocacy group Stand Together, on a January 8th call among conservative opponents of House Resolution 1. To listen to the almost ten minute call, go to this New Yorker article by clicking here. Editor’s note: The presentation is very revealing and is worth hearing in its entirety.

In public, Republicans have denounced Democrats’ ambitious electoral-reform bill, the For the People Act, as an unpopular partisan ploy. In a contentious Senate committee hearing last week, Senator Ted Cruz, of Texas, slammed the proposal, which aims to expand voting rights and curb the influence of money in politics, as “a brazen and shameless power grab by Democrats.” But behind closed doors Republicans speak differently about the legislation, which is also known as House Resolution 1 and Senate Bill 1. They admit the lesser-known provisions in the bill that limit secret campaign spending are overwhelmingly popular across the political spectrum. In private, they concede their own polling shows that no message they can devise effectively counters the argument that billionaires should be prevented from buying elections.

A recording obtained by The New Yorker of a private conference call on January 8th, between a policy adviser to Senator Mitch McConnell and the leaders of several prominent conservative groups—including one run by the Koch brothers’ network—reveals the participants’ worry that the proposed election reforms garner wide support not just from liberals but from conservative voters, too. The speakers on the call expressed alarm at the broad popularity of the bill’s provision calling for more public disclosure about secret political donors. The participants conceded that the bill, which would stem the flow of dark money from such political donors as the billionaire oil magnate Charles Koch, was so popular that it wasn’t worth trying to mount a public-advocacy campaign to shift opinion. Instead, a senior Koch operative said that opponents would be better off ignoring the will of American voters and trying to kill the bill in Congress.

Kyle McKenzie, the research director for the Koch-run advocacy group Stand Together, told fellow-conservatives and Republican congressional staffers on the call that he had a “spoiler.” “When presented with a very neutral description” of the bill, “people were generally supportive,” McKenzie said, adding that “the most worrisome part . . . is that conservatives were actually as supportive as the general public was when they read the neutral description.” In fact, he warned, “there’s a large, very large, chunk of conservatives who are supportive of these types of efforts.”

As a result, McKenzie conceded, the legislation’s opponents would likely have to rely on Republicans in the Senate, where the bill is now under debate, to use “under-the-dome-type strategies”—meaning legislative maneuvers beneath Congress’s roof, such as the filibuster—to stop the bill, because turning public opinion against it would be “incredibly difficult.” He warned that the worst thing conservatives could do would be to try to “engage with the other side” on the argument that the legislation “stops billionaires from buying elections.” McKenzie admitted, “Unfortunately, we’ve found that that is a winning message, for both the general public and also conservatives.” He said that when his group tested “tons of other” arguments in support of the bill, the one condemning billionaires buying elections was the most persuasive—people “found that to be most convincing, and it riled them up the most.”

McKenzie explained that the Koch-founded group had invested substantial resources “to see if we could find any message that would activate and persuade conservatives on this issue.” He related that “an A.O.C. message we tested”—one claiming that the bill might help Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez achieve her goal of holding “people in the Trump Administration accountable” by identifying big donors—helped somewhat with conservatives. But McKenzie admitted that the link was tenuous, since “what she means by this is unclear.” “Sadly,” he added, not even attaching the phrase “cancel culture” to the bill, by portraying it as silencing conservative voices, had worked. “It really ranked at the bottom,” McKenzie said to the group. “That was definitely a little concerning for us.”

Gretchen Reiter, the senior vice-president of communications for Stand Together, declined to respond to questions about the conference call or the Koch group’s research showing the robust popularity of the proposed election reforms. In an e-mailed statement, she said, “Defending civil liberties requires more than a sound bite,” and added that the group opposes the bill because “a third of it restricts First Amendment rights.” She included a link to an op-ed written by a member of Americans for Prosperity, another Koch-affiliated advocacy group, which argues that the legislation violates donors’ freedom of expression by requiring the disclosure of the names of those who contribute ten thousand dollars or more to nonprofit groups involved in election spending. Such transparency, the op-ed suggests, could subject donors who prefer to remain anonymous to retaliation or harassment.

The State Policy Network, a confederation of right-wing think tanks with affiliates in every state, convened the conference call days after the Democrats’ twin victories in the Senate runoffs in Georgia, which meant that the Party had won the White House and majorities in both houses of Congress, making it likely that the For the People Act would move forward. Participants included Heather Lauer, the executive director of People United for Privacy, a conservative group fighting to keep nonprofit donors’ identities secret, and Grover Norquist, the founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform, who expressed alarm at the damage that the disclosure provisions could do. “The left is not stupid, they’re evil,” he warned. “They know what they’re doing. They have correctly decided that this is the way to disable the freedom movement.”

Coördinating directly with the right-wing policy groups, which define themselves as nonpartisan for tax purposes, were two top Republican congressional staffers: Caleb Hays, the general counsel to the Republicans on the House Administration Committee, and Steve Donaldson, a policy adviser to McConnell. “When it comes to donor privacy, I can’t stress enough how quickly things could get out of hand,” Donaldson said, indicating McConnell’s concern about the effects that disclosure requirements would have on fund-raising. Donaldson added, “We have to hold our people together,” and predicted that the fight is “going to be a long one. It’s going to be a messy one.” But he insisted that McConnell was “not going to back down.” Neither Donaldson nor Hays responded to requests for comment. David Popp, a spokesperson for McConnell, said, “We don’t comment on private meetings.”

Nick Surgey, the executive director of Documented, a progressive watchdog group that investigates corporate money in politics, told me it made sense that McConnell’s staffer was on the call, because the proposed legislation “poses a very real threat to McConnell’s source of power within the Republican Party, which has always been fund-raising.” Nonetheless, he said that the close coördination on messaging and tactics between the Republican leadership and technically nonpartisan outside-advocacy groups was “surprising to see.”

The proposed legislation, which the House of Representatives passed on March 3rd, largely along party lines, has been described by the Times as “the most substantial expansion of voting rights in a half-century.” It would transform the way that Americans vote by mandating automatic national voter registration, expanding voting by mail, and transferring the decennial project of redrawing—and often gerrymandering—congressional districts from the control of political parties to nonpartisan experts. Given the extraordinary attempts by Donald Trump and his supporters to undermine the 2020 election, and Republicans’ ongoing efforts to deter Democratic constituencies from voting, it is the bill’s sweeping voting-rights provisions that have drawn the most media attention. During his first press conference, last week, President Joe Biden backed the bill, calling Republican efforts to undermine voting rights “sick” and “un-American.” He declared, “We’ve got to prove democracy works.”

But as the State Policy Network’s conference call demonstrated, some of the less noticed provisions in the eight-hundred-plus-page bill are particularly worrisome to conservative operatives. Both parties have relied on wealthy anonymous donors, but the vast majority of dark money from undisclosed sources over the past decade has supported conservative causes and candidates. Democrats, however, are catching up. In 2020, for the first time in any Presidential election, liberal dark-money groups far outspent their conservative counterparts, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign spending. Nonetheless, Democrats, unlike Republicans, have pushed for reforms that would shut off the dark-money spigot.

The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, from 2010, opened up scores of loopholes that have enabled wealthy donors and businesses to covertly buy political influence. Money is often donated through nonprofit corporations, described as “social welfare” organizations, which don’t publicly disclose their donors. These dark-money groups can spend a limited percentage of their funds directly on electoral politics. They also can contribute funds to political-action committees, creating a daisy chain of groups giving to one another. This makes it virtually impossible to identify the original source of funding. The result has been a cascade of anonymous cash flooding into American elections.

The nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics reports that in the 2020 federal election cycle more than a billion dollars was spent by dark-money groups that masked the identity of their donors. Of that total, more than six hundred and fifty-four million dollars came from just fifteen groups. The top spender was One Nation, a dark-money social-welfare group tied to McConnell. The For the People Act requires greater disclosure of the identities of donors who pay for election ads—including those released on digital platforms, which currently fall outside of such legal scrutiny. It also requires that donors who give ten thousand dollars or more to social-welfare groups be identified, if that donation is spent to sway elections. Donors who fund non-election-oriented activities by such groups can remain anonymous. And, notably, the legislation calls for the disclosure, for the first time, of large donors trying to exert control over the selection of judicial nominees. This provision appears to target groups such as the Judicial Crisis Network, on the right, and Demand Justice, on the left, which have mounted multimillion-dollar public-advocacy campaigns to influence the confirmation of Supreme Court nominees.

Brendan Fischer, a campaign-finance-reform advocate in favor of the legislation, said that the conference call showed that “wealthy special interests are working hard to protect a broken status quo, where billionaires and corporations are free to secretly buy influence.” After listening to the recording, Fischer, who directs the Campaign Legal Center’s Federal Reform Program, added that it exposed “the reality that cracking down on political corruption and ending dark money is popular with voters across the political spectrum.”

On the call, McKenzie, the Koch operative, cited one “ray of hope” in the fight against the reforms, noting that his research found that the most effective message was arguing that a politically “diverse coalition of groups opposed” the bill, including the American Civil Liberties Union. “In our message example that we used, we used the example of A.C.L.U., Planned Parenthood, and conservative organizations backed by Charles Koch as an example of groups that oppose H.R. 1,” he said. “I think, you know, when you put that in front of people . . . they’re, like, ‘Oh, conservatives and some liberal groups all oppose this, like, I should maybe think about this more. You know, there must be bigger implications to this if these groups are all coming together on it.’ â€

However, that test message was inaccurate. Planned Parenthood does not oppose the For the People Act. It is, in fact, on a list of organizations giving the legislation their full backing. And the A.C.L.U. supports almost all of the expansions of voting rights contained in the bill, although it has sided with the Koch groups and other conservative organizations in arguing that donors to nonprofit groups could be harassed if their names are disclosed. Advocates for greater transparency in political spending argue that there is no serious evidence of any such harassment. Asked if she could cite any examples, Kate Ruane, a senior legislative counsel at the A.C.L.U., said that the only one she knew about was atypical—the online backlash experienced by the actor Mila Kunis, after she had made a donation to a pro-abortion group in the name of Mike Pence, a staunch opponent of abortion rights.

With so little public support, the bill’s opponents have already begun pressuring individual senators. On March 20th, several major conservative groups, including Heritage Action, Tea Party Patriots Action, Freedom Works, and the local and national branches of the Family Research Council, organized a rally in West Virginia to get Senator Joe Manchin, the conservative Democrat, to come out against the legislation. They also pushed Manchin to oppose any efforts by Democrats to abolish the Senate’s filibuster rule, a tactical step that the Party would probably need to take in order to pass the bill. “The filibuster is really the only thing standing in the way of progressive far-left policies like H.R. 1, which is Pelosi’s campaign to take over America’s elections,” Noah Weinrich, the press secretary at Heritage Action, declared during a West Virginia radio interview. On Thursday, Manchin issued a statement warning Democrats that forcing the measure through the Senate would “only exacerbate the distrust that millions of Americans harbor against the U.S. government.”

Pressure tactics from dark-money groups may work on individual lawmakers. The legislation faces an uphill fight in the Senate. But, as the January 8th conference call shows, opponents of the legislation have resorted to “under-the-dome-type strategies” because the broad public is against them when it comes to billionaires buying elections.

Jane Mayer has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1995. The magazine’s chief Washington correspondent, she covers politics, culture, and national security. Previously, she worked at the Wall Street Journal, where she covered the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, the Gulf War, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. In 1984, she became the paper’s first female White House correspondent. She is the author of the 2016 Times best-seller Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, which the Times named as one of the ten best books of the year, To learn more about Jane Meyer, click here.

This article was published on March 29 in The New Yorker.

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