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Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (L) and Sen. Josh Hawley (R). Photos: Getty Images

A dark-money group aligned with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer helped pay for deceptive ads aimed at depressing Republican general election turnout in 2018, newly released records show.

Why it matters: These contests were decided more than two years ago, but the details show how partisan operatives exploited gaps in campaign finance laws to attack their rivals while obscuring their true motives — tactics both sides may adopt in next year's pivotal midterms.

  • Republicans Josh Hawley and Mike Braun, now U.S. senators, were among those targeted. So were then-Sen. Dean Heller and now-Rep. Matt Rosendale, who lost their races.

Details: Majority Forward is the nonprofit arm of Senate Majority PAC, a high-dollar super PAC affiliated with Senate Democrats. Newly released tax records show that Majority Forward gave nearly $2.7 million in 2018 to another nonprofit called the Coalition for a Safe and Secure America (CSSA).

  • That was the majority of the $4 million CSSA raised that year.
  • It used those funds to finance direct mail and digital advertising campaigns attacking Republican candidates in some of the nation's most competitive Senate contests.
  • Majority Forward did not respond to Axios' request for comment.

Background: CSSA's ads ran on a handful of state-specific Facebook pages. They hit those Republican candidates from the right, accusing them of caving on issues central to the conservative political brand.

  • Nevada's Heller "allowed almost 200,000 foreign workers a backdoor entry into our country," one ad declared.
  • Missouri's Hawley, the group charged, "sides with Washington liberals against gun owners."
  • "Tax-hike-Mike Braun," is what the group dubbed the former Indiana state representative.
  • Rosendale, then a GOP candidate for Senate in Montana, "supports drone monitoring," the ads in that race claimed.

Between the lines: These attacks came not during GOP primaries, but within weeks of the 2018 general election, as Democrats explored ways to drive a wedge between Republican candidates and their most ideologically committed voters.

  • The timing suggests CSSA was seeking to depress GOP election day turnout or push Republicans to support third parties (some of the group's ads promoted Libertarian Party candidates).
  • The strategy shows how Democrats see GOP candidates as deeply vulnerable to their highly ideological political base.
  • Earlier this year, Hawley led the GOP effort in the Senate to challenge President Biden's electoral college win. Braun had planned to join in the objection but stopped short after the deadly Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

The intrigue: Laws allowing nonprofits to engage in limited political activity permitted Majority Forward to finance these ads in a way that made it impossible to trace the money until years after the elections at issue.

  • CSSA is now facing an IRS complaint from the group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which says it illicitly concealed political activity in its annual tax filings.
  • It also recently admitted to omitting legally required disclosures from direct mail pieces in 2018.

Go deeper

MN GOP gubernatorial candidate touts support from Iron Range Democrats

Expand chart
Map: Danielle Alberti/Axios

As he announced his bid for governor, Republican state Sen. Paul Gazelka sought to make the case that he can build a broader coalition to help the GOP end its statewide losing streak.

  • One strategy he cited? Winning more votes on northern Minnesota's Iron Range.

What he's saying: "Democrat legislators on the Range have said if I run they'll support me,” the former majority leader said at a news conference Wednesday.

State of play: The Range, once a deep-blue bastion of DFL and labor support, has become redder in recent elections. Republicans successfully flipped the 8th Congressional District in 2018 — and protected their hold in 2020.

  • Former President Trump and his surrogates saw the region as key to his unsuccessful bid to carry Minnesota. But as Trump and others have found, running up margins in the region isn't necessarily enough to make the victory math work given population trends.
  • MPR News' David Montgomery points out that the 40,000 votes Republicans picked up on the Range between 2006 and 2020 pale in comparison to the 320,000 Democrats gained in the Twin Cities suburbs.

Between the lines: Gazelka's conservative stances on issues like abortion and gun control should appeal to GOP voters in what's expected to be a competitive primary.

  • But polling and past elections suggest they might make it harder to court those must-win suburban swing voters in a general.

On the other hand: Crime and public safety — issues Gazelka has promised to focus on — appeared to drive votes for the GOP in the burbs last year.

The intrigue: Gazelka confirmed that state Sen. Tom Bakk, the former DFL leader who left his party to caucus with Republicans, is one of his Range backers.

  • A source told Axios that Gazelka has privately floated DFL Rep. Dave Lislegard as another possible supporter. The Aurora Democrat didn't respond to requests seeking comment via his campaign.
Tina Reed, author of Vitals
37 mins ago - Health

Gottlieb: CDC hampered U.S. response to COVID

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

The CDC moved too slowly at several points in the coronavirus pandemic, ultimately hindering the U.S. response, former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb writes in a new book, Uncontrolled Spread.

The big picture: The book argues that American intelligence agencies should have a much bigger role in pandemic preparedness, even if that's sometimes at the expense of public health agencies like the CDC.

911's digital makeover

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

A next-generation 911 would allow the nation's 6,000 911 centers to accept texts, videos and photos.

The big picture: U.S. emergency communications have remained stubbornly analog, but Congress is about to take another run at dragging 911 into the digital age.