A “dark money” group raised record cash in 2020 shortly before it reportedly began touting digital operations aimed at electing Republicans in 2022, OpenSecrets review of tax records found.
Dubbed a “stealth persuasion machine” by the Washington PostAmerican Culture Project is a group associated to John Tillman, a conservative activist and a circle close-knit nonprofits.
A fundraising proposal obtained by the Washington Post shows the operation proposed to build “assets to shape and frame the political field in advance of the 2022 election.”
The fundraising proposal claims that the “persuasion machine” can “maximize the impact for 2022 by reaching that tipping point threshold in all 11 target states and 45 of the 91 districts that determine control” with a $2.5 million gift from a donor whose identity may remain secret.
“Your support of our outreach can be the difference between the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate staying under control of the Democrats or shifting back to pro-freedom Republican majorities,” the proposal reads.
That proposal, dated March 2021, followed the operation’s record fundraising in 2020.
Tax records OpenSecrets has shown that the American Culture Project raised more $1.1 million in 2020 than it did in the previous year. However, this is still less than the $2.5million gift in the fundraising proposal.
The operation was years in the making, as can be seen from tax documents, digital ad data and corporate disclosures.
Before it became the American Culture Project, the group was known as Americans for Government Accountability. As Americans for Government Accountability, the group quietly paid for digital advertising under the name “Americans for Healthcare Freedom,” pushing against Medicare for All in Facebook and Twitter ads, according to a report from Issue One.
The leaked fundraising documents claim that the newer operation is already in operation in Illinois, Florida and Michigan. The fundraising appeal notes mention plans to expand to six additional states: Arizona (Iowa), Minnesota, Pennsylvania (Pennsylvania), Texas, and Wisconsin.
Mighty Michigan’s Facebook page has spent $290,000 on digital ads since the operations’ 2019 launch and Virginia Works spent another $75,000, all paid for by “American Culture.” Many of the Mighty Michigan ads are critical of the state’s Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer.
Not all of those state appendages fall completely under the 501(c)(4) nonprofit’s umbrella.
While Virginia Works’ Facebook ads are paid for by the American Culture Project, a disclaimer on its website Virginia Works is sponsored actually by the American Culture Foundation, an affiliated tax-exempt 501(c),(3) nonprofit that is banned from any political activity.
Tax records The American Culture Foundation raised $426,000 in 2020 – an increase of just $70,000 over the previous year.
Pages like Arise Ohio, Stand Up Florida and Mighty Michigan can most directly be traced to the operation since they list “American Culture” in disclaimers on Facebook or their websites but the “digital persuasion machine” is much more far-reaching.
Illinois Policy Institute, the operation’s flagship organization that served as a playbook for American Culture’s projects, has spent more than $1.6 million via its Facebook page. While the ads listed the Illinois Policy Institute as the payer, their Facebook page was not. managed Americans for Government Accountability until at least October 2020 according to archived copies of the pages maintained through the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.
The close connections between the groups don’t end with their digital media. OpenSecrets’ review of tax records unearthed shared donors among the groups as well.
Multiple nodes have used DonorsTrust to raise funds from donors. commonly Used by conservative dark money organizations as a means to give and receive money. Tax records OpenSecrets review shows that DonorsTrust in 2020 steered $125,000 towards the American Culture Foundation and $48,200 toward the Illinois Policy Institute.
Unlike the American Culture Project and American Culture Foundation, Illinois Policy Institute’s revenue did not spike in 2020 though it took in more than either group with a revenue of $7.5 million.
While the leaked fundraising document reveals unique details of American Culture Project’s operations, this is hardly the only group operating Under the guise or community operation, with deep ties and ties to partisans.
This operation is part a new breed dark money campaigns that use social media and other digital platforms as a way to target voters with their messages, along with other appealing content.
The digital media loopholes have allowed dark money groups to engage with similar tactics. However, due to the lack transparency requirements, the public is not able to access the same level of information from many other groups engaging in similar strategies.