The ads’ sponsor
The Humane Society Legislative Fund formed in 2004 as the lobbying arm of the Humane Society of the United States, a public charity to which donations are tax-deductible.
Donations to the Humane Society Legislative Fund, however, are not tax-deductible, as it’s organized as a “social welfare” nonprofit under section 501(c)(4) of the U.S. tax code.
Electoral politics cannot be the primary focus of charities or social welfare nonprofits, but thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision in 2010, social welfare groups are allowed to run political ads that call for the election or defeat of federal candidates.
For its part, the Humane Society Legislative Fund casts itself as nonpartisan, endorsing candidates based on their stands on animal protection issues.
This year, they’re rooting for the donkey to win the White House.
“Trump represents the greatest threat ever to federal policy-making and implementation of animal protection laws, and we are taking the unusual step of wading actively into a presidential campaign,” Michael Markarian, the Humane Society Legislative Fund’s chief operating officer, wrote in an October blog post.
The group previously endorsed Democrat Barack Obama’s presidential bid in 2008 but did not spend money on ads in prior presidential elections.
Trump himself has said little about animal welfare issues during the campaign, and he has not released a formal policy positions on such matters. But Trump this month accepted a $5,000 contribution from a political committee sponsored by the Safari Club International — the group supports big game hunting — and has periodically panned animal rights activists.
“Ringling Brothers is phasing out their elephants. I, for one, will never go again. They probably used the animal rights stuff to reduce costs,” Trump wrote last year in a tweet after the circus decided to retire its performing pachyderms.
Sara Amundson, the executive director of the Humane Society Legislative Fund, said a big difference between the 2008 election and the 2016 election is money.
“We did not have the expansion of resources to engage [in 2008],” she told the Center for Public Integrity. “In this election cycle, we were very excited to be in the race.”
Who’s bankrolling this foray into Election 2016? It’s not exactly clear.
Amundson insisted her group was “transparent,” but she declined to identify any of its funders.
She simply said the majority of the Humane Society Legislative Fund’s resources come from individual donors.
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton herself has criticized “secret, unaccountable money in politics,” but Amundson said that didn’t describe her group.
What is known: The Humane Society Legislative Fund received about $4.3 million in grants and contributions in 2014, according to a copy of its most recent tax filing accessed on CitizenAudit.org.
The Doris Day Animal League, another social welfare nonprofit that lobbies for animal protection, gave it $1.3 million that year — representing more than 30 percent of the money the Humane Society Legislative Fund received in contributions in 2014.
Tax documents also show America Votes — a group that works to help elect Democrats and bills itself as the “coordination hub of the progressive community” — donated $100,000 to the Humane Society Legislative Fund during its own 2012-2013 fiscal year.
Campaign finance records show the Humane Society Legislative Fund has spent more than $1 million on ads targeting federal races this election, including $170,000 on TV ads opposing Trump.
The animal welfare group launched its attack on Trump in early October, purchasing $10,000 worth of cable ads in Washington, D.C., that appeared on Fox, Fox News and MSNBC, said to Tim Kay, the director of political strategy at advertising firm NCC Media.