In Arizona, Super PACs Take a Lesson from a National Trend to Avoid Disclosing Donors

Man writing words "You have a right to know"

Arizona voters will go to the polls next week without knowing who is behind millions in spending in the U.S. Senate race—which is part of a recent trend in primary elections around the country.

Perhaps inspired by tricks they’ve seen modeled elsewhere, or energized by the sight of a dysfunctional Federal Election Commission (FEC), super PACs active in Arizona’s U.S. Senate primary are pushing the envelope on how and when they report their contributors. The result? Voters are in the dark about the forces behind millions of dollars worth of ads they’re seeing in the final weeks of the election.

To start, there’s Red and Gold, a mysterious super PAC that registered with the FEC on August 1st and has already spent more than $1.5 million attacking the frontrunner in the Republican primary. Two days after forming, it told the FEC not to expect a full report until September 20th—since it had conveniently formed the day after the close of books for the pre-primary report, which would have been due this week.

The next day, it filed its first independent expenditure report showing more than $850,000 in ad buys opposing Republican candidate Martha McSally. A week later, it spent $800,000 more. But it still hasn’t disclosed a single one of its donors to the FEC.

The super PAC appears to have Democratic ties; that may be why it is trying to keep its donors secret until after Republican voters go to the polls

Red and Gold appears to be taking a page out of the playbook of two super PACs that were active in the West Virginia Republican primary earlier this year. It wasn’t until after the election that voters learned that the “Duty and Country PAC,” which spent around $1.8 million in the race, was funded by a handful of major Democratic donors, and that the “Mountain Families PAC,” which spent $1.3 million, was mostly bankrolled by the Mitch McConnell-tied Senate Leadership Fund. Like Red and Gold, both gamed the reporting schedules to avoid disclosing these donors before the primary, despite spending millions on ads in the weeks leading up to the election. This election cycle, super PACs across the country have tried variations of these ploys, as POLITICO recently chronicled.

These schemes have ranged from deliberately gaming reporting deadlines and requirements to flouting them all together. Earlier this month, CLC filed complaints against three super PACs, active in the Texas, Ohio, and Montana primaries, for particularly egregious, and, as we argue, illegal, skirting of reporting requirements.

Another super PAC active in the Arizona primary, the seven-month-old DefendArizona, is mysterious on multiple fronts: not only has it taken in $200,000 from two LLCs that appear to have been set up for the purpose of hiding the identity of the true donors, but it has also failed to disclose the source of more than half of its spending. 

Highway 76 LLC and Blue Magnolia Investments LLC gave $100,000 each to DefendArizona only a month after first registering in Delaware. That suggests, as we argued in our complaint against them earlier this month, that the LLCs were formed for the purpose of funneling six-figure contributions to the super PAC while keeping the real donors’ identities secret.

Additionally, there appear to be millions in contributions to DefendArizona that voters know absolutely nothing about—not even the names of any sham LLCs used to make them. To date, DefendArizona has spent more than $4 million on independent expenditures supporting McSally or attacking her Republican opponent, Kelli Ward. But it has reported raising only $1.38 million, according to its most recent report. Where did those remaining millions come from? Arizona voters likely won’t know until mid-October, when DefendArizona will file its third quarter report—almost two months after the primary.

This, combined with the contributions that came from two brand new LLCs with no public footprints, means that voters are in the dark both with respect to the millions in as-yet unreported contributions and with respect to $200,000 of the contributions that were reported.

Finally, yet another super PAC active in Arizona, New American Jobs Fund, has spent almost $650,000 on independent expenditures supporting Democratic candidate Kyrsten Sinema, but it has only disclosed $25,000 in contributions this whole election cycle—in fact, its most recent report showed not even $7,000 in cash on hand. It has not filed the Arizona pre-primary report due last week, perhaps because it claimed that this six-figure spending is for the general election. The only problem? The primary hasn’t happened yet. Even though Sinema has been characterized as encountering only “nominal opposition” in the comparatively uncontentious Democratic primary, New American Jobs Fund should likely have filed a pre-primary report given that it is spending during the primary. 

Given what we know—or, rather, given what we don’t know a week out from the Arizona primary—Red and Gold,  DefendArizona, and New American Jobs Fund, and/or their mystery donors, may share what’s become an increasingly common understanding among super PACs across the country: that the FEC is so dysfunctional that they can likely get away with testing—or jetting past—their legal reporting and disclosure obligations.

Maggie is a researcher and investigator, following leads on campaign finance issues.