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The Left’s Lucrative Nonprofits

This article originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal on September 5, 2019.

This year’s Democratic presidential candidates have a favorite whipping boy: “powerful interests.” Get ready to hear again in coming weeks how the National Rifle Association rules Washington, how the Koch empire dominates politics, how the right is pouring “dark money” into its agenda. And then remember that these are among the biggest whoppers of the 2020 election. One side will do battle with the aid of a huge and savvy nonprofit political empire—and it isn’t the right. Though the sooner Republicans understand that, the better.

A helpful tutorial arrived this week, “Power Grab,” a new book by Republican former Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah. Mr. Chaffetz has been digging into nonprofits since his time as House Oversight Committee chairman, and the book details how powerful the liberal nonprofit sector has grown. It may surprise many Americans—those who read daily stories about conservative “influence”—that the likes of the NRA, Judicial Watch and the National Organization for Marriage barely rank by comparison to the assets and revenue of Planned Parenthood, the American Civil Liberties Union or the Nature Conservancy.

These aren’t only big political players; they’re the biggest political players. In 2018 the nonprofit watchdog Capital Research Center analyzed grants handed out in the 2014 election year by six big foundations on the right (including the Bradley and Charles Koch foundations) versus six on the left (including the Open Society and Tides foundations). Liberal public-policy charities, organized under chapter 501(c)(3) of the tax code, bagged $7.4 billion of this foundation money in 2014. For conservative charities, the figure was a mere $2.2 billion. That $7.4 billion also dwarfed total 2013-14 campaign receipts to federal, state and local campaigns ($4.1 billion) and spending that cycle by independent groups ($830 million).

Mr. Chaffetz’s contribution is to refocus attention on the way liberal charities channel their huge funds into political work that benefits the Democratic Party. We’ve long known that some of them engage in nominally nonpartisan voter registration, conveniently only in places likely to yield Democratic votes. The Chaffetz book adds new data highlighting contracts between liberal charities and overt political organizations.

The book showcases Planned Parenthood, which according to its tax filings has for at least eight years spent tens of millions of dollars in total on contracts with Grassroots Campaigns Inc. GCI is a for-profit political outfit, which brags about activating Democratic voters. Technically, Planned Parenthood hires GCI for “consulting” and “fundraising.” The latter involves rolling out GCI employees to knock on doors or stand on the street asking for Planned Parenthood donations. This solicitation is netting someone somewhere an extraordinary list of potential Democratic voters and recruits. And here’s the kicker: Tax filings show that Planned Parenthood consistently pays more to GCI annually than GCI raises for Planned Parenthood. Other enormous liberal charities use GCI in the same way, and consistently run losses.

Dark, powerful money? The left has a monopoly here, too, via the creation of a new “sponsor” model. Take Arabella Advisers, also the subject of a Capital Research Center report. Arabella is a for-profit, privately held entity. It manages four generously funded liberal nonprofits, which according to tax filings between 2013 and 2017 received $1.6 billion in donations. Those four entities in turn collectively “sponsor” dozens of political outfits. The beauty of this arrangement, for the left, is that the “projects” don’t have to disclose any information—salaries, vendors, original funders, boards, nothing. They are black holes.

And they are influential. Just one of these recent “pop-up” groups is Demand Justice, a “project” of Arabella’s Sixteen Thirty Fund. The outfit got rolling in early 2018, with the express purpose of combating Republican judicial nominees, and was a major player in the drive-by hit on Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Almost nothing is known about Demand Justice beyond that it is run by former Hillary Clinton campaign spokesman Brian Fallon. Where are all those media sleuths when you need them to sniff out “dark money”?

The history of campaign-finance laws is largely a history of groups getting around them. As the power of liberal charities grows, so too will the calls for new rules or investigations. Conservatives would be wiser to educate themselves about this rapidly changing money environment, and get in the game. Elections are increasingly about identifying voters, engaging them, and getting them to the polls. One person at a time.

Conservatives can also start fighting more aggressively the nonsense media and Democratic claims that wealthy networks of conservative or corporate donors run the country. The reality is completely opposite, and the money Goliath is the left.