A national super PAC backed by a left-leaning dark money fund is pouring tens of thousands of dollars into the Spokane County auditor’s race less than three weeks before the general election.
Open Democracy, a political action committee based in Washington, D.C., is spending $75,000 on more than 100,000 mailers in an effort to help incumbent Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton fend off Republican challenger Bob McCaslin. The November general election is expected to be close, after Dalton took 52% of the vote during the August primary compared to McCaslin’s 48%.
The mailers are an independent expenditure, unrestricted by federal law and made without input from Dalton or the Democratic Party.
“Bob McCaslin is already threatening our fair elections,” one of the mailers reads. “And now he wants to run them.”
The Spokane County auditor oversees the county’s elections, financial services, motor vehicle licensing and document recording.
It’s not unheard of for a national PAC to spend big on a Spokane County election. For example, the National Association of Realtors last year spent more than $150,000 in support of Spokane City Council candidates Jonathan Bingle and Mike Lish.
Open Democracy’s $75,000 investment is unprecedented for a Spokane County auditor’s race, though, and it’s a significant amount of money. For context, Dalton and McCaslin have raised a combined $101,000.
The super PAC supports mostly Democratic candidates throughout the country at the federal, state and local level. It has raised more than $5 million since the start of 2021, according to Federal Election Commission filings.
Several famous liberals have donated to Open Democracy. Kate Capshaw, best known for co-starring alongside Harrison Ford in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” has given the PAC money. So has John Pritzker, whose family manages Hyatt Hotels and Resorts.
Open Democracy’s biggest donor isn’t a person.
The Sixteen Thirty Fund is a 501©(4) nonprofit, a tax designation that allows it to keep donors secret. The fund has given the PAC more than $2 million since the start of 2021.
Campaign finance experts often refer to the Sixteen Thirty Fund as one of the leading sources of dark money among Democratic political contributors because it doesn’t disclose its donors. The Sixteen Thirty Fund has spent tens of millions of dollars supporting liberal candidates and causes.
On its website, Open Democracy says it focuses on combating extremism and backing candidates who champion fair, secure and accessible elections.
One of the PAC’s mailerscalls McCaslin, a sitting state representative from Spokane Valley, an extremist, noting his connection to former state Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane Valley. The House Republican Caucus in 2019 ousted Shea after an independent investigation found he committed an act of domestic terrorism when he participated in the 2016 standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
The mailer also accuses McCaslin of promoting election conspiracies, “stoking false claims about voting fraud” and wanting to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.
Some of Open Democracy’s claims aren’t fully substantiated, but McCaslin has lobbied for 2020 election audits and publicly appeared on stage last summer with Seth Keshel, an activist who questions the legitimacy of 2020 presidential election results. Keshel, who tours the country arguing that President Joe Biden’s victory appears to have been illegitimate based on past voting trends, headlined a meeting that McCaslin co-hosted.
During the 2021 legislative session, McCaslin attempted unsuccessfully to pass a law that would have required counties to hire private businesses to audit their 2020 elections. He also signed a petition this summer that called for an audit of Spokane County’s 2020 election.
The Spokesman-Review reached out to McCaslin for comment, but he said he was busy and hung up. The state legislator, who lists transparency as one of his top campaign priorities, has repeatedly shied away from interviews and debates while he runs for auditor.
Dalton said she’s against any negative advertising. She hadn’t yet seen the mailer when she spoke with The Spokesman-Review on Friday morning, but she did comment on Open Democracy’s spending.
“I think this reflects a nationwide concern about the impact of misinformation, disinformation and even attacks on our elections systems and elections administrators,” she said.
Dalton said she supports efforts to remove dark money from politics.
“I do not support the concept of dark money, or even of corporations being able to make contributions,” she said. “Regardless of who is supporting what, I think that the money trail needs to be clear. Contributions need to be made public.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox
Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.