In the continuing search for the actual harm inflicted by the IRS’ extra scrutiny of 501(c)(4) applications by certain kinds of conservative groups, a new data point has popped up that’s a bit hard to square with the election-related-witch-hunt hypothesis (not as hard as the fact that the large conservative groups who actually had an impact on the 2012 election were so far as we know entirely left alone, but still hard): conservative groups dominated the list of groups approved for tax-exempt status. Here’s Kevin Drum’s summary of what we now know:

The Inspector General’s report about this included an audit of 298 groups that had been given special scrutiny. Of these, 96 had “tea party,” “patriots,” or “9-12 project” in their names. But that’s all we know. We have no idea how many of the 298 groups were liberal and how many were conservative, because the IRS doesn’t release the name of groups that have applied for tax-exempt status.

However, the IRS does publish the names of groups that have received special scrutiny and been approved for tax-exempt status. They recently released a list of 176 organizations that have been approved since 2010, so Martin Sullivan checked each one to figure out if it was liberal or conservative. Here’s what he found:

122 conservative

48 liberal/nonconservative

6 unknown

This doesn’t tell us anything definitive about the entire set of groups that got special scrutiny. If the whole set is similar to the approved set, then about two-thirds were conservative and one-third liberal—most likely because of the boom in new tea party groups in 2010. But that’s just a guess.

One thing isn’t a guess, however: Two-thirds of the groups who were approved for tax-exempt status were conservative. If the IRS was on a partisan witch hunt against conservative groups, that’s sure an odd way of showing it, isn’t it?

Sure is. In any event, before House investigators go down too many rabbit holes looking for who knew what when, this question of overall IRS scrutiny of tax-exempts, existing and potential, and what impact the scrutiny actually did and did not have, ought to get a lot more attention. That may, unfortunately, be the problem: Republicans want this “scandal” to be “about” every bad experience or fear anyone has ever had involving the IRS. But none of that is really germane unless you climb on the crazy train and decide it’s all some sort of metaphor for the “Lois Lerner State” or something, which absolves the accuser of any need for facts and connections.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.