The second biggest spender in the Alabama Senate race looks and acts like a local operation.
But in a state where out-of-state interference is seen as poisonous by many voters, the true identity of the donors to Highway 31, which exists to support Democratic candidate Doug Jones, has been carefully shielded from Alabama voters by legally evading Federal Election Commission disclosure rules.
To date, the organization has reported spending nearly $2 million on television, digital and direct mail ads, including attacks on Republican Roy Moore for allegedly dating teenage girls and praise for Jones as a Christian believer who will uphold Second Amendment rights. Highway 31 is named for the road connecting Alabama’s four major cities.
The group did not accept any donations before Nov. 22, when the Federal Election Commission required all independent groups working on the race to file a pre-election report disclosing donors, according to a person familiar with the operation.
The group’s spending on the race began weeks earlier, on Nov. 8, according to filings. The payment of bills for that spending was delayed, according to the person, allowing for the group to delay raising money and avoid the deadline.
In a report filed Thursday, the group reported owing vendors $1,154,844.31 as of Nov. 22. The majority of debts are owed to Bully Pulpit Interactive, a liberal media firm based in D.C., and Waterfront Strategies, another Democratic media buying firm in Washington.
“We are a single-issue PAC that was formed for the sole purpose of helping Doug Jones be the next senator from Alabama,” said Adam Muhlendorf, a Montgomery-based political strategist, who previously worked in Washington. He is leading the effort with Edward Still, a Birmingham attorney, and declined to discuss his group’s donors.
The only operation that has invested more in the race is the Jones campaign, which has spent $5.4 million on television and radio advertising since Oct 3, the first week after the primary season ended, according to another person tracking spending rates. The Moore campaign, by contrast, has only spent $895,000 during the same period.
There is a smaller, independent group supporting Moore with television ads, Proven Conservative PAC, but it took contributions before the Nov. 22 deadline, and therefore has disclosed donations. They include $100,000 from Richard Uihlein, a shipping materials entrepreneur based in Wisconsin, and $25,000 more from the Alabama company Wellborn Cabinets.
In total, Proven Conservatives has disclosed raising $246,500 this year, which includes money spent in the special election primary. It has disclosed spending more than $30,000 so far on the Dec. 12 general election to support Moore or oppose Jones.
The technique of delaying contributions to avoid public disclosure is not new. “In a lot of cases, payments might be made later on if it is customary for those particular vendors to extend credit,” said Eric Wang, a Republican campaign finance attorney at Wiley Rein, who previously worked at the Federal Election Commission and is not working on the Alabama race.
Jones’s campaign has benefited from a fundraising boom, as progressives around the country send checks no larger than $2,700 to his campaign in the hopes of Democrats picking up a Senate seat. But more established Democratic groups, which can raise money in larger amounts, have so far refrained from buying ads in the state, in an apparent effort to avoid further identifying Jones with the national Democratic Party.
Under the rules set out by the FEC, final contributor and expense disclosure reports for the race must be filed by Jan. 21.
Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly attributed a motive to the group’s decision to not accept any donations before Nov. 22.