Dark money is increasingly playing a role in local and state elections around the country, including in Louisiana. Credit: Animalparty via Wikimedia Commons

Louisiana is in a statewide election year, so all state offices, including governor and every seat in the state legislature, will be up for election. Campaign spending has a large impact in every state election, but this year analysts expect dark money to impact elections in new ways.

While the dark money concept has been around in the United States since 2010, it was primarily deployed in large coastal states such as California and New York. Because of its success in both ballot initiative and candidate campaigns, the practice is now used nationwide. 

In the past few years, Louisiana has seen its share of dark money campaigns. And it is critical that voters understand how they are structured.

There are three types of campaign spending: hard money, soft money and dark money. The most common form is hard money, which is any direct contribution to a campaign fund.

While candidates can spend as much of their personal money as they wish, the law sets limits on how much individuals can give to a candidate. In Louisiana, individual contributor limits range from $1,000 to $5,000 per election. Primaries and general elections count as different elections. 

All hard money campaign contributors must be identified on candidates’ campaign finance reports, which are public.

Money spent on a campaign by outside groups is called soft money. There are several types of soft money groups, including political action committees (PACs), political parties and labor unions. Traditional PACs can coordinate with candidates and are subject to limits on contributions. Super PACs have no limits on the amount of money that donors can give, but they are prohibited from working directly with candidates they support or oppose. 

The rules for parties and labor unions differ from state to state, however, like PACs, they are required to disclose their donors. All traditional soft money organizations must disclose the identity of donors.

Dark money groups are not required to disclose their donors, and there are no limits on the amount of money a donor can give to a dark money group. These groups are protected under the 501(c)4 clause of the U.S.Tax Code as social welfare nonprofits. Such nonprofits are not required to disclose their donors. 

In the past, these non-profits were prohibited from engaging in political activity, until one group successfully challenged that prohibition in federal court. During 2010, in the case of Citizens United v. FEC, the Supreme Court, by a 5 to 4 vote, ruled that the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting political expenditures from corporations, including non-profit corporations. 

Dark money groups appeal to wealthy donors because they can give to these groups without disclosing their identities. Often the groups will route their money through newly created PACs that have few, if any, other donors.

In 2020, current New Orleans District Attorney and several judicial candidates benefitted from spending from out of state progressive dark money groups. Then in 2021, current New Orleans Sheriff Susan Hutson defeated 18-year incumbent Marlin Gussman with the help of dark money.

The most recent and most glaring example of the local impact of dark money was the Public Service Commission race last year in which 18-year incumbent Lambert Boissiere was defeated by newcomer Davante Lewis. In the Lewis victory, more than $1 million of dark money spending showed up in the final weeks of the campaign to tip the balance.

Now that dark money groups have successfully swung a few races in Louisiana, they will likely be active in this year’s races for governor, other statewide and legislative races. Dark money attacks on candidates tend to show up suddenly and without warning leaving candidates without the funds to immediately respond to these attacks at a disadvantage. 

The reality is that, in order to be competitive, most candidates will need to either become allies with a dark money group, or else found their own dark money group. And hose with misgivings about the Citizens United ruling might adapt to the old saying: If you can’t beat them, join them.

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Robert Collins is a professor of Urban Studies and Public Policy at Dillard, where he holds the Conrad N. Hilton Endowed Professorship. He previously held positions as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences...