A Democratic dark-money group with ties to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) reportedly paid for deceptive attack ads that aimed to depress Republican voter turnout in the 2018 midterm elections, according to records reviewed by Axios.
Then-Republican Senate candidates Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Mike Braun (R-Ind.) as well as then-Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) and now-Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.) were targeted with attack ads that hit them from the right, falsely accusing them of holding liberal positions on key issues important to conservatives.
The ads were purchased by a nonprofit group called the Coalition for a Safe and Secure America. Tax records obtained by Axios reporter Lachlan Markay reveal that CSSA received a majority of its funding from Majority Forward, a nonprofit linked to the Senate Majority PAC, a super PAC that works on behalf of Senate Democrats.
In 2018, Majority Forward made a $2.7 million donation to CSSA, which was more than half of the $4 million CSSA raised that year. CSSA then turned that money around to buy direct mail and digital advertising campaigns attacking Republicans in competitive Senate races.
The digital ads ran on Facebook pages specifically tied to the states where each candidate was running for Senate. They accused Republicans of being weak on certain conservative issues.
Facebook users were told that Hawley, for example, "sides with Washington liberals against gun owners" and was a "pro-government gun control, career politician."
Another ad that ran in Indiana accused Braun of wanting to raise taxes.
Some of the ads that CSSA ran encouraged conservatives to support independent or Libertarian Party candidates. These ads were timed to coincide with the general election, not Republican primaries, showing how Democrats wanted to depress voter turnout for Republican candidates to win Senate races.
Incumbent Sen. Dean Heller lost his bid for re-election that year and Matt Rosendale failed to unseat Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), though he was later elected to the House of Representatives in 2020.
"Laws allowing nonprofits to engage in limited political activity permitted Majority Forward to finance these ads in a way that made it impossible to trace the money until years after the elections at issue," Markay reported.
Several Senate Democrats have in the past openly opposed so-called dark-money groups spending money raised from anonymous donors for political purposes. Yet, NBC News reported last year that Democratic-aligned dark-money groups outspent Republican groups for the first time ever in 2018.