More than $130,000 in dark money targets Flood in GOP race with Fortenberry
LINCOLN — Dark money is filling in the TV advertising gap between indicted U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry and his top primary election opponent, State Sen. Mike Flood of Norfolk.
Flood’s campaign had spent nearly $240,000 on TV ads by late February, based on purchase agreements with TV stations. The Fortenberry campaign, over the same span, spent nearly $180,000 on TV ads.
But an outside group called the American Future Fund has spent another $130,000 on anti-Flood TV ads and two anti-Flood mailers that recently hit local mailboxes, federal documents show.
That money has helped offset a drop in fundraising by Fortenberry’s campaign since the congressman was charged in October with lying to federal investigators, which is a felony. Fortenberry raised just $70,000 from donors in the final quarter of 2021. He had raised $100,000 in each of 2021’s first three quarters, before being indicted.
Funneling money anonymously
Now some well-heeled donors are funneling money anonymously through American Future Fund, an Iowa- and Virginia-based pass-through organization, the Nebraska Examiner has learned.
The last time the group spent that much money on a Nebraska race was in 2014, when American Future Fund spent more than $600,000 to help Beau McCoy and hurt Jon Bruning in the GOP governor’s primary election. Gov. Pete Ricketts won that race.
Conklin Co. CEO Charles Herbster, who is now running for Nebraska’s GOP nomination for governor, played coy in 2014 when asked by an Omaha World-Herald reporter whether he had donated funds for ads supporting McCoy, his favored candidate.
“That’s one of the questions I’m going to take the Fifth Amendment on, OK?” Herbster said at the time. (People pleading the Fifth are invoking their right to avoid incriminating themselves in court.)
In 2014, Herbster did deny being behind the dark money group’s attack ads against Bruning. Ricketts also denied involvement in the anti-Bruning ads.
This year, Ricketts has endorsed Flood in the 1st Congressional District race.
And on Friday, Herbster said he wasn’t involved in the anti-Flood ads.
“I am not, Aaron,” Herbster said. “And I don’t know who is.”
Avoiding public disclosure
American Future Fund did not return messages seeking comment. The group’s website describes it as a 501(c)(4) fund for people who support conservative and free-market viewpoints.
Such groups do not have to disclose who is funding their ads, either on federal campaign finance forms or in tax documents. The pass-throughs are designed to avoid revealing donors’ names.
Political observers say the use of dark money groups such as American Future Fund could matter in a race where the incumbent, Fortenberry, is charged with lying to the FBI about his campaign raising funds from foreign sources, which would be illegal.
Donors may prefer one candidate over the other, but they might not want to publicly express their choice, said Randall Adkins, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
In this case, Adkins explained, political donors are giving money to a group to drive up negative perceptions of Flood. But since their identity is shielded, they won’t get tied to the spending if Fortenberry loses during either his March 15 trial or the May 10 primary election.
“This gives them a means where they don’t have to publicly express that criticism,” Adkins said. “And they get the benefit of not attaching their name to a candidate who’s currently federally indicted.”
Citizens United, Speech Now
Geoff Lorenz, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, studies interest-group politics and the influence of lobbying organizations.
He has explored the increased importance of outside groups since two court rulings — Citizens United and Speech Now, both in 2010 — eliminated spending limits and cut disclosure requirements on certain independent expenditures.
The rulings have curbed some of the influence of political parties taking sides in primaries, because individual donors can swing spending on their own, he said.
These outside groups or pass-throughs are typically used when an “insurgent candidate” challenges a well-funded incumbent, Lorenz said. That’s not the case in this race.
“What’s interesting about this case is Senator Flood and Congressman Fortenberry are both Republicans, and they’re both well-known figures in the party,” Lorenz said.
In most instances, pass-throughs are paid 5%-12% of the money spent on ads, political consultants told the Examiner. American Future Fund has already spent $130,000 against Flood, documents show. The outside cash is being spent primarily on TV ads that echo the language of Fortenberry’s own ads criticizing Flood on immigration, including the play on words using Flood’s last name.
The company buying the Fortenberry campaign’s TV ads also owns the group handling ad purchases for the pass-through group, public and private documents show.
American Future Fund, which cannot legally coordinate its advertising or messaging with the Fortenberry campaign, is running ads in the Lincoln television market, while Fortenberry’s campaign runs more ads in Omaha. This lets Fortenberry get more bang for his campaign buck, observers said.
The 1st District includes much of eastern Nebraska outside of Omaha, including Lincoln and Bellevue.
$150,000 on lawyers
Fortenberry campaign spokesman Jim Hilk said the campaign knows nothing about who’s behind the outside spending. He called the criticism of Flood on immigration “common knowledge.”
Flood campaign spokesman Ryan Kopsa criticized Fortenberry’s embrace of dark money.
“With Fortenberry’s criminal trial looming, a donor hiding their identity is using this rent-a-PAC front group to try to help Fortenberry hold on to his title at the cost of what’s best for Nebraska,” Kopsa said.
Fortenberry’s campaign, at the end of 2021, listed nearly $900,000 in campaign cash on hand. Flood, who joined the race in mid-January, raised more than $400,000 in the first few weeks, his campaign said.
Fortenberry’s biggest campaign expense in 2021 was $150,000 spent on the law firm defending him in federal criminal court, federal campaign finance records show.
Members of Congress are allowed to use campaign funds on legal expenses. Fortenberry also created a separate fund to raise money for his legal defense, documents show.
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