Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst Denounced ‘Dark Money’ as Her Campaign Privately Embraced It
“This issue isn’t going away in 2020, and it will be devastating to her re-election campaign as Iowans learn more about her breaking the rules to further her own political career.”
(By Karl Evers-Hillstrom, Center for Responsive Politics) Around the same time that Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) publicly expressed distaste for “dark money” this summer, a consultant for her campaign reportedly approached a donor about backing a secretly funded group supporting the Iowa Republican’s reelection bid.
Democratic forces seeking to unseat Ernst in 2020 are pouncing on an Associated Press report appearing to show that a pro-Ernst dark money group worked closely with the campaign.
According to a July email obtained by the AP, Ernst campaign consultant Claire Holloway Avella asked a donor to make a $50,000 contribution to Iowa Values, a political nonprofit backing the incumbent senator, after Ernst introduced the two.
The next month, OpenSecrets and the Des Moines Register reported that liberal and conservative dark money groups, among them Iowa Values, had already poured $1 million worth of political ads into Iowa. The bulk of the ads aimed to either bolster or weaken Ernst ahead of 2020.
In an August interview with the Register, Ernst stressed that outside forces backing her campaign are independent and that under federal law she “can’t engage with any of these outside groups.”
“What I fear is that there is so much outside money being spent that my message is not going to be heard,” Ernst said. “How will people be able to sort through that and understand that I am not supporting these other messages?”
Ernst also expressed displeasure with the explosion of dark money spending in Iowa, and said those groups might be more cautious about their messages if they were required to report their sources of funding. During her time in the Senate, Ernst has not endorsed any bills to require disclosure of dark money donors.
The Iowa Republican’s comments emphasizing the independence of outside groups are at odds with the AP report. In addition to sharing a fundraiser with the Ernst campaign, Iowa Values was founded by Ernst’s former deputy chief of staff and is run by her former chief of staff, Derek Flowers. At one point, the group used the address of a condo owned by Flowers when he still worked for Ernst, the AP reported.
The Campaign Legal Center filed a complaint against Iowa Values with the Federal Election Commission Thursday, arguing that it is purely a political group and should have to disclose its donors.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and its preferred Iowa challenger, Theresa Greenfield, plan to advertise Ernst’s ties to the dark money group on the campaign trail, using the AP report to portray her as part of the problem in Washington.
“This issue isn’t going away in 2020, and it will be devastating to her re-election campaign as Iowans learn more about her breaking the rules to further her own political career instead of working to clean up the broken system in Washington,” DSCC press secretary Stewart Boss told OpenSecrets in an email.
Candidates and outside groups are prohibited from coordinating their political activities. But the FEC generally has not enforced coordination rules, allowing for the proliferation of super PACs and nonprofit groups tied to party leaders and individual candidates. The FEC currently does not have a quorum and thus cannot punish those who violate campaign finance laws.
Brook Ramlet, senior adviser to the Ernst campaign, told OpenSecrets in an email that the campaign is independent from outside groups and is acting “in full compliance with and in the spirit of the law.”
“Meanwhile, there’s a Democrat dark money group, Iowa Voices, spending millions in secret money lying about Senator Ernst’s record,” she said. “No one knows where the money comes from and the media doesn’t seem to care.”
OpenSecrets reported on Iowa Voices in August, noting its ties to a number of similar Democratic dark money groups hitting GOP senators. The nonprofit group has spent nearly $1.3 million on TV ads attacking Ernst on her healthcare record, according to OpenSecrets’ political ad tracker.
On the other side, Senate Republicans’ dark money arm, One Nation, has spent six figures running ads praising Ernst. Iowa Values has spent less than $20,000 on digital ads, but the group is more focused on developing a ground game to boost Ernst, according to a strategy memo.
None of these groups expressly advocate for or against Ernst’s election in their ads. As such they are not required to report spending to the FEC, meaning that disclosed outside spending in the race appears almost nonexistent.
When Ernst first won her seat in 2014, outside spending totaled $62 million, far more than the $30 million spent by the candidates. Several groups that don’t disclose their donors, such as the conservative U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Crossroads GPS, as well as the liberal VoteVets, spent big on the race. Ernst defended the rights of dark money groups during the race.