The Invisible Hand of Business in the 2012 Election

Meanwhile, as these companies were funding Energy Alliance to push their interests, the National Mining Association was busy channeling $3.9 million from its member companies — Alpha Natural Resources, Consol Energy, Cloud Peak Energy and Patriot Coal, among others — into a program called "Count on Coal." This program placed 150 billboards in six battleground states and developed materials for mobilizing voters against Environmental Protection Agency policies affecting the coal industry.

Three weeks before the election, NMA president and CEO, Hal Quinn, emailed coal companies to remind them that "surveys have shown that employees consider their employers to be a reliable and trustworthy source of information about issues and candidates," and to "begin talking to your employees about what's at stake this fall." A pamphlet sent out by the group to workers at various coal firms included endorsements for Mitt Romney and a slate of mostly Republican candidates for Congress. Count on Coal’s pre-election videos featured warnings about "Obama's war on coal," highlighted a positive message from Romney, and ended by stressing the importance of voting.

The effort, according to a 2012 NMA tax return, was handled by the public relations firm, Weber Merritt Strategies.

Other industries took a more subtle approach to shaping the election discourse. A recent disclosure also reveals that the Private Equity Growth Capital Council paid the Glover Park Group to help rebuff campaign-related attacks on the private equity industry. The Glover Park Group is a public affairs firm founded by former Clinton administration officials. After Newt Gingrich, followed by Obama and his allies, stepped up attacks on Romney’s days at Bain Capital, alleging that Bain's business strategy often destroyed jobs, Glover Park stepped in with positive messages in the media about private equity and its role in local communities.

It's worth noting that this publicity effort, which tax forms show cost over $1 million dollars, did not include "vote for" or "against" language, meaning it went on without any form of campaign disclosure. Similarly, none of NMA's employee-focused advocacy required FEC registration.

If all these examples suggest that the Republicans received the majority of dark-money donors' largesse, it's because they did. Yet Democratic secret money groups were not left completely wanting, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The Alliance for Quality Nursing Home Care, a trade group funded by for-profit nursing and specialty medical care centers, like Genesis HealthCare and Belmont Nursing Center Corporation, gave $750,000 to Patriot Majority USA, a pro-Democratic 501(c)(4). That said, the nursing group also gave $900,000 to Republican-aligned dark money organizations, among them, American Action Network, Americans for Jobs Security and Crossroads GPS, the secret money fund co-founded by Karl Rove. (Last year, The Nation delved into the way trade associations, now empowered to dole out secret money in races, are quickly becoming centers of political power in Washington.)

So far, the Alliance's bipartisan strategy seems to be working. A bill strongly favored by the Alliance which modifies the Medicare reimbursement rules for nursing centers, is now co-sponsored by a number of Tea Party and progressive lawmakers.

In contrast, a bill that aims to shed light on the secretive dark-money world hasn’t garnered such support. The DISCLOSE Act of 2013 would, as the name suggests, disclose the donors to 501(c)(4) political groups as an election unfolds. Though the act wouldn't hamper the flow of corporate cash into elections, it would nonetheless be a marked improvement over the current system, which allows only for a partial view of donors one year after an election concludes.

And yet, even this modest effort can't get traction. The bill, proposed by Representative Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), was sponsored ten months ago and appears unlikely to receive consideration.

    • Lee Fang
    • Lee Fang is an Investigative Fund Fellow at The Nation Institute and a San Francisco-based journalist covering the intersection of lobbying, politics, and political movements. He is a contributing writer for the Nation, and has a book slated to appear in early 2013 on the campaign by conservatives to block President Obama's domest...

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