March 12-18 is Sunshine Week, an annual celebration aimed at promoting transparency. This story is part of a series highlighting OpenSecrets’ work to shine a light on key areas related to money in politics at the state and federal level.
“Pop-up” super PACs that kept their donors hidden from voters until after Election Day poured $6.6 million into federal midterm races in the days leading up to the general election and the U.S. Senate runoff in Georgia, a new OpenSecrets analysis found.
Super PACs are required by federal law to disclose their donors, but pre-general reports to the Federal Election Commission only cover political contributions through Oct. 19, 20 days before election day. By launching a new super PAC just before an election, political actors can avoid disclosing their donors until after votes are cast, leaving voters in the dark about who is trying to influence them.
Two super PACs accounted for nearly $5 million in “pop-up” spending in federal congressional races: Pennsylvania Lawyer Fund, which spent $2.5 million boosting both Republican and Democratic congressional candidates, and Worker Power PAC for Georgia, a union-funded super PAC that shelled out $2.5 million to influence voters in the state’s U.S. Senate runoff election.
The Pennsylvania Lawyer Fund filed a statement of organization with the FEC on Oct. 28, 11 days before the Nov. 8 general election. A week later, the fund spent $200,000 supporting Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.), who won the race for Pennsylvania’s 7th Congressional District by 2 percentage points. But the vast majority of the super PAC’s expenditures boosted congressional candidates in out-of-state elections.
The super PAC spent a total of $535,000 in the New Hampshire U.S. Senate race — $350,000 to support Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) and $185,000 against her Republican opponent Don Bolduc. Another $250,000 went toward supporting Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and $15,000 boosted Rep. Darin LaHood (R-Ill.). All won their general election bids.
The fund also spent $500,000 each to boost the campaigns of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), now-Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) and Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.). Maloney was the only candidate supported by the Pennsylvania Lawyer Fund to lose in the general election.
The Pennsylvania Lawyer Fund is entirely funded by Raymond Lahoud, an immigration lawyer in Allentown, Pa. Lahoud has individually contributed directly to campaigns since at least 2002, spending a total of about $40,000, mostly on Democratic candidates.
“When it comes to candidates, I always look at the person who may be running in cases that matter or campaigns that intrigued me, and their potential in terms of what they could do over their years of service there,” Lahoud said. “They’re all over the spectrum. I think that you need both parties out there to achieve certain results.”
Lahoud said he filed later in the election cycle because he saw how close some of the races he was interested in were.
“J.D. [Vance], Sean Patrick [Maloney], word got out, looking at media reports that he was in trouble there. Susan Wild really came down to the wire here. No other reason beyond that,” he said.
Another “pop-up” super PAC, Worker Power PAC for Georgia, filed a statement of organization with the FEC on Nov. 15, the day before the end of the pre-runoff reporting period. Incumbent Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock and GOP challenger Herschel Walker advanced to a Dec. 6 runoff when neither candidate won a majority of the vote in the general election.
Worker Power PAC for Georgia reported putting $1.8 million into field canvassing and expenses on Nov. 16. But its pre-runoff report did not disclose any donors or expenditures, instead reporting the $1.8 million as a debt and obligation. The super PAC reported spending an additional $2.3 million on field canvassing and expenses to support Warnock on Nov. 29, eight days before the runoff election.
The super PAC later disclosed receiving $2.9 million from the Arizona-based federal super PAC, Worker Power PAC. Worker Power PAC is primarily funded by Unite Here PAC, which is almost entirely funded by Unite Here, a labor union representing workers in the hotel, airport, transportation, gaming and textiles manufacturing industries.
The fundraising page for Unite Here Local 23 — the Georgia chapter of Unite Here — directs donors to a page saying their contribution, through ActBlue, will support hospitality workers impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Worker Power PAC for Georgia reported receiving an additional $100,000 from the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor one day after the second field canvassing expenditure.
Worker Power PAC for Georgia did not respond to OpenSecrets’ request for comment.
“Pop-up” super PACs popped up across the country
While Democrats had retained control of the U.S. Senate by the runoff, political spending during the runoff pushed the Georgia Senate race past Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate contest to claim the title of the most expensive race of the 2022 election cycle.
Another “pop-up” super PAC, Relay, spent $500,000 on “voter outreach and turnout” supporting Warnock on Nov. 27, the day before early voting started in Georgia. Relay filed a statement of organization with the FEC on Nov. 13 and did not disclose any donors in its pre-runoff report.
Relay disclosed several donors in its post-runoff report. The top donors, America Votes Action Fund and Susan Mandel, each contributed $250,000. Susan Mandel and her husband, hedge fund manager Stephen Mandel, contributed at least $17.7 million to left-leaning outside groups and federal candidates during the 2022 midterms, according to OpenSecrets data.
America Votes Action Fund is a federal super PAC that only partially discloses its donors. America Votes Action Fund is affiliated with America Votes, a nonprofit organization founded in 2003 as “a permanent advocacy and campaign infrastructure” to promote left-progressive causes. It does not disclose its donors.
“A key aspect of our mission is making long-term investments in civic engagement to build a more diverse, reflective democracy. Our contribution to Relay was part of a broad campaign to engage Georgia voters and build the long-term infrastructure necessary to create a more accessible democracy,” Emerson Morrow, communications manager at America Votes, told OpenSecrets in a written statement.
Another Georgia super PAC, Georgia Safe & Strong, Inc., filed a statement of organization with the FEC one day after the general election, the day the Georgia Senate race advanced to a runoff. The pro-Warnock super PAC sponsored a drone show featuring get-out-the-vote messages over Piedmont Park in Atlanta, Ga., on Dec. 4.
Georgia Safe & Strong Inc. spent $626,732, including $54,050 on the “drone light show,” none of which was disclosed before the post-runoff report filed on Jan. 5. In this case, it wasn’t one large donor, but several donors funding the super PAC, including $50,000 from the president emeritus of the Queens-based contemporary art institution MoMA PS1, Agnes Gund.
The Pennsylvania Senate contest was one of four U.S. Senate races considered a “toss-up” by the Cook Political Report. One “pop-up” super PAC, CFE Action, filed a statement of organization with the FEC on Oct. 11, but it didn’t spend any money in the Pennsylvania Senate race until the day after the end of the pre-general election reporting period on Oct. 19. The super PAC dropped $138,000 on media production and placement opposing now-Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) on Oct. 20.
It was later revealed that a super PAC that only partially discloses its donors, Eighteen Fifty-four Fund, bankrolled CFE Action when the pop-up super PAC filed its post-general report with the FEC on Dec. 8. Eighteen Fifty-four Fund contributed $150,000 to CFE Action on Oct. 20, the same day the super PAC made its media buy.
Named for the year the GOP was founded, Eighteen Fifty-four Fund was formed by Kevin McLaughlin, the former National Republican Senatorial Committee executive director. A spokesperson told Axios that the super PAC was formed to “supplement” the work of Senate Leadership Fund and Congressional Leadership Fund, super PACs aligned with Republican Senate and House leaders, respectively.
The Hispanic Leadership Alliance, a Texas-based super PAC primarily funded by Ralph de la Torre, the CEO of Steward Health Care System. De la Torre donated $160,000 to the super PAC on Oct. 21, ensuring it wouldn’t be disclosed until after the election.
The group spent $110,000 supporting the successful reelection of Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-Texas). It also supported two out-of-state first-time Republican Reps. Lori Chavez-DeRemer (R-Ore.) and Juan Ciscomani (R-Ariz.), spending $25,000 for each.
De la Torre could not be reached for comment
“Pop-up” super PACs in the primaries
This isn’t the first time “pop-up” super PACs meddled in high-profile races during the 2022 midterm election cycle.
Ahead of the U.S. Senate GOP primary in New Hampshire, White Mountain PAC filed a statement of organization with the FEC two days before pre-primary reports were due. The day after the filing deadline, that “pop-up” super PAC poured $4.6 million into the race boosting the more moderate GOP candidate, state Senate President Chuck Morse, who lost to Bolduc in the primary.
White Mountain PAC later disclosed it was funded by the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Bolduc lost the general election race to incumbent Hassan.
Another “pop-up” super PAC, Conservative Americans PAC, spent more than $2.4 million in Republican primary races for U.S. House seats in Missouri, Tennessee and Arizona from July 19 to 29. But because the super PAC filed a statement of organization with the FEC on July 11, it did not have to disclose its donors until Aug. 20, weeks after voters cast their ballots in all three states’ primaries.
When Conservative Americans PAC did finally disclose its donors, the trail went cold — two “dark money” groups, American Economic Freedom Alliance and American Prosperity Alliance, ultimately contributed $3.6 million and $875,000, respectively, to the super PAC. As such, voters remain completely in the dark about who spent millions to try to influence their vote.
Senior Data Analyst Brendan Glavin contributed to this report.