THE SPECIAL INGREDIENT: SECRECY…. About four months ago, American Crossroads, created in part by Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie to destroy Democratic campaigns, reported on its recent fundraising. After raising over $1 million in start-up funds, the GOP campaign operation had collected only $200. It prompted a fair amount of guffaws.

That laughter has long since faded, as American Crossroads has since raised tens of millions of dollars in secret donations, all of which is being used to air deceptive, anti-Democratic attack ads.

So, what was with those initial paltry totals? As it turns out, American Crossroads intended to play by more honorable rules, at least at first. Its organizers only ditched the plan when they saw it wouldn’t work.

From the outset, American Crossroads leaders placed a high value on transparency and embraced the idea of full public disclosure when it came to contributions. Indeed, when the entity was created, Rove & Co. registered American Crossroads as a 527 — which required regular donor disclosure. It was all part of a larger commitment to, in the words of one group leader, “full accountability.”

Ken Vogel reports that those principles were quickly thrown out the window when the American Crossroads team learned the right-wing fat cats preferred a system of secret money.

But, less than one month after the panel, with American Crossroads entering its fourth month of existence struggling to raise money from donors leery of having their names disclosed, the Crossroads operatives spun off a sister group called Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies (or Crossroads GPS, for short), which they registered under a different section of the tax code — section 501(c)4 — that does not require donor disclosure.

With the Crossroads fundraising team, led by Rove, emphasizing to prospective donors the ability to give to Crossroads GPS anonymously, fundraising took off. […]

The success Crossroads has had in attracting anonymous donors highlights a broader trend on the right in which political activity has increasingly shifted to non-profit corporations that can conceal donors’ identities. Republican finance insiders interviewed for this story say it is easier to get major GOP donors to contribute when there’s no risk of having their identities disclosed and being subjected to either additional appeals for money from other groups, or to criticism from President Barack Obama and other Democrats.

They’re apparently motivated by a combination of fear and paranoia. Donors don’t want to have to deal with the public scrutiny that comes with trying to purchase American democracy — go figure — and they’re apparently genuinely afraid of some kind of punishment from the Obama administration.

And so, for all the talk about the value of transparency, disclosure, and the norms of American democracy, Crossroads’ leaders were more than willing to sell their principles for the value of secrecy.

I’m not sure who are bigger cowards — the donors who buy elections from the shadows or Rove and his team who abandoned their commitments when fundraising totals were underwhelming.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.