Feb 7, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Conservatives pin progressive consulting firm as new "dark money" target

President Biden is seen watching as Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer announces his retirement last month.

President Biden watches as Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer announces his retirement last month. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

A leading conservative advocacy group's seven-figure effort to turn an obscure progressive consulting firm into the face of Democratic "dark money" is drawing legal threats from the firm's lawyers, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: The Judicial Crisis Network's $2.5 million ad campaign goes after Arabella Advisors in the context of President Biden's upcoming nomination to the Supreme Court. But it's part of a much larger effort on the right to make Arabella a household name.

  • In private conversations with donors, GOP fundraisers are bringing up Arabella and its clients to warn of a flood of progressive funding they say is tilting the scales of national political contests.
  • Publicly, conservatives have pointed to spending by Arabella and its clients to allege hypocrisy by Democrats who decry undisclosed political donors.
  • Arabella describes the campaign as baseless and malicious. After it sent legal demands last week to stations airing the new ad, JCN revised the spot and began running a modified version.

What's happening: JCN's new ad is airing on cable TV stations in the D.C. area, according to advertising analytics firm AdImpact.

  • "The president and the Senate were bankrolled by Arabella Advisors," the original version of the ad stated.
  • It called Biden's Supreme Court pick "a huge payback" to the group.
  • Arabella attorneys alleged defamation in letters to broadcasters, pointing out that Arabella has not donated to any political campaigns — and, as a corporation, is legally barred from doing so.

JCN lawyers called Arabella's letter "a meritless attempt to shield your viewers from the dangerous levels of influence exerted by the Arabella network over critical decisions being made by the Biden administration."

  • The group nonetheless modified its ad to say Biden and Senate Democrats were "bankrolled by Arabella Advisors' network."

Be smart: Partisans often seek to isolate and elevate high-dollar donors that can be portrayed as hidden masterminds behind their opponents' success.

  • George Soros and the Koch brothers have long held bogeyman status on the right and left, respectively.
  • Conservatives see Arabella as a new player in a formidable progressive funding apparatus.

Between the lines: Arabella, a for-profit company, has risen to prominence due to the huge sums spent in recent years by nonprofits it advises and helps administer.

  • Its clients include organizations like the Sixteen Thirty Fund and the North Fund, which act as "fiscal sponsors" for scores of progressive advocacy groups.
  • Those groups have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on policy advocacy and, in some cases, explicitly political activities.
  • Due largely to spending by Arabella clients, which generally do not disclose their donors, progressive nonprofits are far outpacing their opposition in so-called "dark money" spending, a recent New York Times investigation found.
  • But Arabella itself is not the actual entity spending that money. And while critics paint it as a hidden mastermind, Arabella describes its role as largely administrative.

What they're saying: "Arabella Advisors is not the source of funding for any of these organizations, and we do not exert control over the spending decisions of our clients," a spokesperson told Axios.

  • "The claims in this advertisement were false, and they deliberately mischaracterize the work of Arabella Advisors and several of our clients. Even JCN acknowledged this, that's why they changed their ad."
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