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These fact checks of North Carolina politics are a collaboration between PolitiFact and WRAL. You can hear them Wednesdays on WFAE's Morning Edition.

Fact Check: Tillis 'Mostly False' In Comparing Small Campaign Donations To Big, Dark Money Contributions

Sen. Thom Tillis speaks in a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Federal Courts and Oversight.
Sen. Thom Tillis speaks in a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Federal Courts and Oversight.

This week, we're looking at remarks made by Republican U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis regarding campaign donations. During a committee meeting earlier this month on the influence of money in federal judicial races, Tillis said small, aggregated donations are "exactly the same" as big, dark money donations. Joining us to assess that is WRAL's Paul Specht.

Marshall Terry: First, Paul, what does the term "dark money" mean when we're talking about campaign donations?

Paul Specht: That's a big term, but it typically just refers to any political spending where the source of the money or the source of the donations is unknown or covered up in some way or protected. Candidates specifically are required to list all of their donors so long as they donate a certain amount. And that varies by state. And in some states, like North Carolina, if someone donates to a candidate an amount less than $50, then that candidate does not have to report that. That's too small. And that threshold varies by state.

Terry: Now, Tillis is talking about large, dark money contributions. So why is it that sometimes contributions of more than $50 in North Carolina don't have to be reported?

Specht: Well, some of this goes back to the famous Supreme Court case, Citizens United. But just more generally speaking, some of this is considered protected speech when it comes to political donations and what details of a donor are and are not required to be listed. And, of course, you know, super PACs obviously play huge roles in elections. And a lot of their donations come from groups and corporations that are able to, to some degree, hide their involvement.

Terry: Is it true then what Tillis said during that committee meeting — that small campaign donations are the same thing as those big dark money donations?

Specht: Well, he takes this a little too far. It's accurate that there are some donations so small that the donors are not revealed. As I mentioned, in North Carolina, if you donate less than $50, then your name may not show up in a politician's campaign finance report. However, Tillis specifically called out something here that is really important and that's aggregation tools.

Common aggregation tools are ActBlue with Democrats or WinRed with Republicans. And essentially these are platforms for people to make donations. They make it easier for candidates to accept small donations. Now, if your donation is processed through an aggregator, even if it is tiny, that aggregator has to list the donor's name and the amount with the Federal Elections Commission.

Terry: What did Tillis mean by what he said?

Specht: He was suggesting here that Democrats are very good at getting small-dollar donations through aggregators. What he leaves out here is that Republicans, especially in the 2020 election, were very effective at using these same tools. His point was Democrats want to see more transparency from big, dark money groups. And he was trying to say that Democrats should also show more transparency on small-dollar donations through groups like ActBlue.

But what he misses here is that donations through ActBlue are already disclosed. And he also misses that Republicans are also very good at these small-dollar donations through their group, WinRed.

The final thing that experts pointed out to us is that it's misleading for Tillis to suggest that these big super PACs that spend dark money and these small donations that aren't listed in campaign finance reports have the same level of influence. He even said they're the same thing; these two types of dark money are the same thing. And experts say that's just not the case in the real world.

Someone who donates $20 — whether they do or don't have their name listed in a campaign finance report — they're nowhere near as likely to influence an election or to influence a candidate as a special-interest group or a corporation or whoever that uses large sums of dark money to pay for campaign ads in a race.

Terry: How did you rate this claim by Tillis?

Specht: Tillis' statement contains an element of truth in that there are some donations that are so small that candidates are not required to list the donor's name in their campaign finance reports.

However, he misses two big things here. One is that many of those small donations do have the donor's name listed if they go through an aggregation tool — and he mentioned those aggregation tools in that committee meeting. And the other thing is he equated their level of influence. And it's just not fair to say that, you know, big amounts of dark money and small donations from individuals are going to carry the same weight. And so we rated this "mostly false."

Terry: All right, Paul, thanks.

Specht: Thank you.

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Marshall came to WFAE after graduating from Appalachian State University, where he worked at the campus radio station and earned a degree in communication. Outside of radio, he loves listening to music and going to see bands - preferably in small, dingy clubs.