When Congress passed 2002’s bipartisan McCain-Feingold bill on campaign finance reform, many hoped for a new era in US politics. It set limits on individual and political action committees’ contributions and required that all contributions in federal elections be reported to the Federal Election Commission and made available for public scrutiny. We feared that big money would ultimately find a way to subvert McCain-Feingold and again insert itself into the electoral process. After the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case found that money was a form of free speech that could not be limited in politics, the floodgates were indeed opened—with massive “independent expenditures” from both the left and right, by corporations and interest groups supporting or opposing campaigns. Groups representing banks, big pharma, women’s rights, the gun lobby and others spent millions advancing their interests. The funds they poured into campaigns—“dark money expenditures”—were considered private and not subject to FEC reporting or public disclosure.

Supporters of Israel have a long history of bundling large contributions to support or oppose candidates. Before and after McCain-Feingold scores of pro-Israel PACs would routinely bundle donations, raising millions of dollars every election cycle. Though intimidating, the funds they raised were duly reported to the FEC and were available to the public. This year is different. Fearful that Israel is losing support among Democrats, especially progressive Democrats, elements of the pro-Israel community have developed a number of “dark money” entities with the express purpose of defeating “progressive Democrats” even if they haven’t yet been outspoken critics of Israel or Israeli policies. Much of their expenditures haven’t been in support of candidates, but against those whom they oppose. And the massive advertising campaigns they’ve waged haven’t focused on Israel but instead been devoted to tearing down the reputations of those they hope to defeat.

This year, millions have been spent to smear and defeat candidates in Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Texas, Maryland, and now Michigan and Missouri. Despite the obscene amounts spent, this effort operated without much notice until recently, when a former Maryland congresswoman running to regain her seat was subjected to a $6,000,000 negative advertising blitz attempting to discredit her years of public service. As has been the case in other races, the total amount expended by these pro-Israel groups exceeded the amount raised by her campaign.

A few investigative reporters have succeeded in uncovering the sources of some funds, often a handful of billionaires—from energy companies, investment firms, and high-tech industries. Many are Republican donors who hope to advance a pro-Israel agenda by defeating progressive Democrats. This past week’s primaries featured four such contests, three in Michigan and one in Missouri. In Michigan, a Palestinian American incumbent was targeted by over $2,000,000; a Jewish American incumbent faced a barrage of negative advertising funded by over $4,300,000—though he is pro-Israel, apparently not pro-Israel enough; and an Indian American candidate was targeted by over $4,200,000. In Missouri, an African American congresswoman, who rose to national prominence during the racial justice protests in Ferguson and in 2020 unseated a long-standing pro-Israel member of Congress, was confronted with millions of dollars in negative advertising seeking to discredit her service to her district. When the results were tabulated, “dark money” was defeated in three of these contests—only succeeding in defeating the Jewish American incumbent in Michigan. That’s what “dark money” can do.

Thus far, in 2022, the pro-Israel “dark money” groups and PACs have spent over $30 million with a mixed win-loss record. But the real losers go beyond the candidates themselves—both those who’ve lost and the winners whose reputations have been tarnished. What’s at stake is the integrity of our elections and the political process being distorted by excessive amounts of “dark money.” The outcome of a democratic election shouldn’t be determined by the highest bidders, who spend unlimited amounts to destroy an opponent. Also at risk, and equally important, is the ability of candidates to freely debate a critical issue without fear of having their political careers ended by a few big money donors willing to ruin their reputations if they dare to speak out.