Condemnation came swiftly Friday morning as news broke of Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst’s connection to the “dark money” group Iowa Values, and how it has helped raise money to bolster her 2020 reelection effort.
The Associated Press reported today on material it obtained revealing the group has done more than simply raise money and push messaging favorable to Ernst. Documents, emails and a strategy memo “also show Ernst and her campaign worked in close concert with Iowa Values,” according to the AP.
In one instance, Ernst appeared to introduce a donor to the fundraiser for the political nonprofit, who then reached out, referencing that introduction, to request $50,000 to help messaging efforts in support of Ernst.
“Using the same consultants to simultaneously run the campaign and a dark money group to boost her reelection is an egregious violation of the law,” said Tiffany Muller, president of End Citizens United, in a statement. “But after voting to raise healthcare costs and take away protections for preexisting conditions, Ernst can’t rely on Iowans for support, so she turned to dark money to bankroll her election.”
Iowa Values resurfaced in June with a six-figure digital advertising campaign “to highlight the work Sen. Ernst has done to fight for Iowans and to combat wasteful government spending.” The nonprofit, now run by Derek Flowers, a campaign manager for Ernst in 2014, was first organized during her initial run for Senate.
In a statement to the AP, Brook Ramlet, a senior advisor to Ernst, denied any illegal contact between Iowa Values and the Ernst campaign, calling its findings “the definition of fake news.”
Ramlet did not offer any evidence to contradict the AP report in his statement to the news outlet.
“This deeply troubling report details Senator Ernst and her staff secretively breaking the rules for personal gain, and those involved should be held fully accountable for this illegal conduct,” said Stewart Boss, spokesperson for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, in a statement. “Senator Ernst ran on a promise to shake up Washington and take on the special interests, but the truth is she’s been caught trying to exploit our broken campaign system to benefit her political career because she’s part of the problem.”
As Starting Line has pointed out in past reporting, the Federal Election Commission does not currently have enough members on its board to meet, leaving a glaring void in the government’s ability to monitor political spending.
Though the 2010 Supreme Court Citizens United ruling made it legal for unlimited spending by outside groups like Iowa Values, it is illegal for such groups to coordinate with candidates’ political campaigns, which operate with different fundraising limitations.
In its article, the AP cited a legal expert who said the connections between Iowa Values and the Ernst campaign “seems like pretty strong evidence” the two had coordinated to some degree.
Progress Iowa, a progressive advocacy organization, called on Ernst to release her campaign’s internal communications in light of the “dark money” connection allegation.
“Iowans deserve to know if their Senator and her staff have broken the law,” said Progress Iowa executive director Matt Sinovic, in a statement. “If Joni Ernst truly represents Iowans, she will make every communication between her and her staff responsible for this shady ‘Iowa Values’ organization public.”
The AP’s reporting adds another layer to the struggles Ernst has faced this year in her attempt to win a second six-year term.
The latest fundraising quarter spelled trouble for Ernst and an October Morning Consult Poll showed her net approval rating had dropped 9 percentage points. She also is still dealing with the fallout from a September town hall where she said politicians should “sit down behind closed doors” to discuss changes to Social Security.
In an interview this fall with a Quad Cities radio show, Ernst said “changing demographics” were to blame for her polling woes among Iowa voters.
On Friday, some of the Democrats campaigning to unseat Ernst weighed in on the Iowa Values controversy.
“This is political corruption, plain and simple, and Senator Ernst owes Iowa families a thorough explanation for her illegal tactics,” said U.S. Senate candidate Theresa Greenfield, in a statement. “Senator Ernst isn’t just counting on her personal dark money group to spend unlimited secret money in this race, she’s breaking the rules to ensure they’re operating to bail out her struggling campaign.”
Eddie Mauro, who released his first TV ad this week, said Ernst was “far more interested in bringing home the bacon” than living up to her infamous “make them squeal” pledge.
“When I take office in 2020, I will immediately push for legislation to ban leadership PACs, regulate ‘social welfare organizations’ engaging in campaign activity, and promote a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United,” said Mauro, in a statement.
“These organizations pay no taxes, yet participate in our elections. Enough is enough.”
By Elizabeth Meyer