Dark money has reached Illinois politics, with voters increasingly finding themselves facing ads and mailers paid for by unknown sources with unknown motives.
Nationally, spending on campaigns by groups who don’t disclose their donors has been rising for more than a decade. This is a bipartisan problem. In 2016, five of the six largest dark money groups were supporting Republicans; in this year’s midterm elections, more than half of outside spending on TV ads supporting Senate Democrats came from dark money sources.
While there’s a lot of media attention trained on this issue at the national level, you can find dark money in state, county, and city-level races here in Illinois.
Pop-up PACs in Lake County
Let’s look at the below-the-radar race for Illinois General Assembly in Lake County. In July, ten new committees popped up to support the candidacy of Republican Asian American candidates for the state legislature. The groups’ GOP connection was obvious because Danielle Mergner, a chairperson for the New Trier Republican Organization, filed paperwork for the committees listing herself as treasurer.
But where the money for the committees came from is unclear.
While some of the pop-up committees received contributions from Republican megadonor Richard Uihlein and other individuals, most of the cash came from a mysterious nonprofit called Asian American Advocacy. Not much is known about that group except that in July, it began distributing about $155,000 among the newly created committees and gave $15,000 in direct contributions to Republicans Soojae Lee in the 30th Senate District and Julie Cho in the 18th House District.
About half the new groups passed along $20,000 contributions to Cho’s campaign, while a few made political ad buys directly.
The committees may have been created to give the appearance that a diversity of groups backed candidates like Cho, even though almost all their funding traced back to Asian American Advocacy. On Election Day, Cho lost to Democrat Robyn Gabel by more than 40 points, but the proliferation of Asian American groups supporting her may have had a symbolic long-term purpose rather than a pragmatic short-term one — essentially, a way of creating the appearance of a tight connection between the GOP and Asian Americans. Democratic state Rep. Theresa Mah called the creation of the political action committees “an empty gesture” and suggested that they were an attempt by Republicans to signal to Asian Americans, particularly Koreans, that the candidates had broad support from Asian American voters. (For more details on these committees, visit Illinois Sunshine, where you can see the interconnectedness of their boards and funding sources, and see Hannah Meisel’s excellent reporting on this topic in The Daily Line here and here.)