This week may be remembered as the birth of the Koch Party. A usurper of the GOP and a rival to Democrats, the network of conservative advocacy groups backed by Charles and David Koch pledged Monday to spend $889 million on the 2016 election. Financially, the tax-exempt Koch coalition could be as big as either of the two major parties, spending more than the combined 2004 campaign budgets of President George W. Bush and Democratic challenger John Kerry. Koch operatives will poll, track, and target voters—mirroring the activities of a traditional political party. Except for one thing: dark money. The Democratic and Republican parties are required by law to disclose their donors. Not so for outside groups. While the Koch alliance disclosed some of its contributors last year, most of its money comes from anonymous sources. Secrecy breeds distrust, if not corruption, as voters are left to guess what politicians do to repay their donors.
The nation is experiencing a crisis of confidence in its political and government institutions, a decades-long depression with seeds in Watergate, where a corrupt and paranoid president financed his schemes with dark money. Then came a generation of loopholes bored into post-Watergate reforms, including the 2002 McCain-Feingold legislation, and the final blow: In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that campaign spending limits violated the First Amendment.
Now we have the worst of all worlds: Gobs of money showered over Democratic and Republican candidates with precious little transparency. The 2016 presidential campaign will give rise to the next grim iteration of dark money: “The arrival of candidate-specific nonprofits, personalized vehicles for a politician’s supporters to raise and spend unlimited cash—completely clandestinely,” writes my colleague Shane Goldmacher.