6th District: Gun control group’s spending prompts debate over dark money in politics

Lucy McBath, then a spokesperson for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, speaks during a rally in Atlanta on April 29, 2017. (DAVID BARNES / DAVID.BARNES@AJC.COM)

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Lucy McBath, then a spokesperson for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, speaks during a rally in Atlanta on April 29, 2017. (DAVID BARNES / DAVID.BARNES@AJC.COM)

The two Democrats vying to take on Congresswoman Karen Handel in Georgia's 6th Congressional District are tussling over the biggest outside spender in their primary battle, a tiff that reflects their party's shift to the left and uneasy embrace of the current campaign finance system.

At the center of the debate is the political arm of Everytown for Gun Safety, a New York gun control advocacy group whose mission both candidates support, and the role of so-called dark money in today's campaigns.

While last summer's special election in the 6th District shattered campaign spending records, this year's contest has been a much sleepier affair. Only two outside groups have spent to influence the race ahead of a July 24 primary runoff between first-time Democratic candidates Lucy McBath and Kevin Abel, who are battling to take on Handel, R-Roswell, this fall.

More than 95 percent of that outside money, upwards of $832,000, has come from Everytown, which has sponsored advertisements on behalf of McBath, a onetime spokeswoman for the group who lost her son to gun violence. The spending helped bolster McBath earlier this spring as she sprinted to raise her name ID after entering the 6th District contest at the eleventh hour.

Abel has criticized McBath for benefiting from Everytown’s spending while also accepting the endorsement of End Citizens United, a group that seeks to overhaul the country’s campaign finance system.

“If Lucy McBath is serious about curbing the influence of outside money in politics, I ask her to publicly denounce and refuse to accept outside dark-money spending in this primary and let the voters of Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District choose their nominee,” Abel said earlier this month.

But Abel walked back those comments during an Indivisible-sponsored debate Monday after McBath framed him as being disingenuous. She cited a  tweet from his campaign asking Democratic megadonor Michael Bloomberg to invest in the contest, and she asked him whether he was supportive of gun control given that he was criticizing Everytown.

That prompted Abel to apologize. He said he was trying to comment on the impact of super PACs in elections, not on the work of groups like Everytown.

“I am a tremendous supporter of the mission of Everytown and Lucy’s advocacy for gun safety and I’m absolutely in line with what they’re advocating for,” he said. “I wish that they would be sending that money to advocate for a candidate who is running against someone who is not for the same issues.”

Both candidates are pushing for expanded gun control policies in the aftermath of recent mass shootings in Las Vegas and Parkland, Fla.

During the debate, McBath said she “absolutely oppose(s)” dark money in politics” and repeatedly stated incorrectly that Everytown is not a dark money group. (Its political action arm is a 501(c)(4), which does not need to disclose its donors and can spend unlimited amounts on elections as long as it does not coordinate with campaigns.)

“We have to consider what these organizations are. They’re organizations that do very good work in the community around the country,” she said. “It is not dark money. I am not receiving corporate money from super PAC organizations under the table.”

The exchange showcases the tension that has emerged -- particularly among Democrats -- in the eight years since the Supreme Court’s landmark Citizens United decision. Many denounce the infiltration of dark and corporate money into the political system but still court big donors since they say that’s what’s needed to stay competitive under that very system.

An Everytown spokeswoman said McBath is on unpaid leave from the group.

"Lucy McBath knows first hand the personal toll of gun violence and will fight every day for the constituents of the Georgia 6th Congressional District to keep them safe,” said Everytown spokesperson Molly Corbett.

Insider’s note: This item was ripped and expanded from the Jolt.

This story has been updated with a link to Abel’s tweet. 

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