Dark money is fueling Karen Handel’s campaign for Congress

The Georgia Republican opposed anonymous campaign mailers — until they benefited her.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Diana Ofuso
CREDIT: AP Photo/Diana Ofuso

In September 2008 — a time before the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling would open the flood gates for dark money to pour into politics — a little-known, conservative state senator in Georgia made a play to help Republicans in his state win elections.

Then–Sen. John Wiles (R) knew that if he could lift Georgia’s law that banned outside groups from purchasing anonymous mailers, he could transform the way his party conducts campaigns. He declared at the time that he would “not support any effort to regulate anonymous political speech.”

Wiles was able to get his colleagues on board, and they quietly passed legislation removing the ban. But the move earned him critics, including the top Republican in the state tasked with running elections.

Karen Handel, then Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, said she was “adamantly” opposed to Wiles’ political maneuver—she had recently launched a “transparency in government” program. Eyeing a run for governor, Handel vowed to work with both the state House and Senate to restore the ban, according to her spokesperson at the time.

Fast forward eight and a half years, through failed campaigns for governor and for the Senate, Handel is now the Republican candidate taking on fundraising-juggernaut Jon Ossoff in the special election for Georgia’s sixth congressional seat. As individual donors pour money in, trying to flip the historically solid conservative district to Ossoff, Handel is relying heavily on the same kind of spending she so recently fought against.

Outside groups have spent roughly $9 million supporting Handel’s campaign during the primary and leading up to the June 20 runoff. More than $250,000 of that total has been spent on anonymous direct mail.

CREDIT: End Citizens United
CREDIT: End Citizens United

The contest for the seat vacated by Tom Price, President Trump’s Secretary of Health and Human Services, recently set a record, becoming the most expensive House race in U.S. history. More than $18 million has come in from outside groups as of late May.

In the first three months of the primary, before Handel secured the nomination, her campaign took in just over $463,000 compared to Ossoff’s $8.3 million. But unlike Handel, the 30-year-old Democrat is relying heavily on individual donors. More than 60 percent of his money came from small donations of $200 and under, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Outside groups heavily helped Handel achieve her first-place finish among Republicans in the primary. According to Open Secrets, “Handel is backed with $1.2 million from the dark money arm Ending Spending, run by the Chicago Cubs–owning Ricketts family, as well as Save the American Way, a super PAC that sent out mailers claiming she would ‘end Muslim immigration,’ a message Handel condemned.”

She has also benefited from at least $170,000 in direct mailers by the Congressional Leadership Fund, a conservative super PAC. The same group spent a total of $3.7 million leading up to the primary and vowed to spend another $3.5 million supporting Handel in the run-off. More than half of that will be used on television ads, including one tying Ossoff to Kathy Griffin and another that attempts to connect Ossoff to Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D) and the city of San Francisco.

All three groups don’t disclose their donors or are funded by groups that don’t disclose their donors.

The total from outside groups — especially the amount spent on anonymous campaign literature — is high, especially for a candidate who once condemned this type of political speech. Handel’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment about when or why she changed her position on anonymous spending.

Tiffany Muller, executive director of End Citizens United — which has spent at least $15,000 in support of Ossoff and raised more than $1 million for him from small donors averaging $14 each — told ThinkProgress that Handel’s change of positions is an example of “Washington double speak.”

“The hypocrisy is striking,” she said. “Karen Handel was for a ban on secret political spending, but now that it’s clear she can’t compete with Jon Ossoff and his small-dollar, grassroots donors, her campaign is almost completely reliant on special interest money from groups that refuse to disclose their donors.”

The issue did not come up when Handel ran for U.S. Senate in 2014, when outside spending played a far smaller role in her campaign. That year, she only benefited from $112,683 in outside money—far less than outsiders spent to bolster two other Republicans who both beat her in the primary. Most of her fundraising that year came from individual contributions.

Three years later, Handel is now the leading Republican for the vacant House seat, and outside groups are pouring millions in dark money into helping her get to Washington.

“Career politician Karen Handel happily supports anonymous super PAC and special interest money when it’s bankrolling her campaign, despite them airing debunked and graphically violent ads on her behalf,” Ossoff campaign spokesperson Sacha Haworth told ThinkProgress. “Georgians expect and deserve much better from a leader.”