April 18, 2017
Democratic Georgia congressional candidate Jon Ossoff made headlines recently with an $8.3 million fundraising haul for today’s special election in Georgia, almost all of it raised from out-of-state donors. Ossoff’s campaign contributors are not the only ones pouring money into the race from outside of Georgia’s sixth district. Out of state dark money non-profits have contributed at least $3.75 million to super PACs active in the race and spent more than $1.8 million on independent expenditures as the total outside spending for the seat approaches $8 million.
Leading the charge is the American Action Network, a DC-based non-profit close to House Republican leadership that does not disclose its donors. Last month, the group contributed $3.5 million to its “sister” super PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund. The super PAC in turn spent more than $2.5 million on independent expenditures blasting Ossoff, including ads tying him to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA) “extreme agenda,” college debauchery, and even Osama bin Laden. To keep the Atlanta suburban district red, Republicans must ensure Ossoff receives less than fifty percent of the vote to force a run-off. A crowded field of Republican candidates is expected to splinter the GOP vote while recent polling shows Ossoff drawing support from 43 percent of district voters.
Though the bulk of the super PAC’s recent spending has been underwritten by the anonymously funded American Action Network, a few well-known contributors also gave big to the Congressional Leadership Fund ahead of the upcoming special election with energy giant Chevron giving $250,000 and private prison company the GEO Group contributing $100,000. In addition to the ads hitting Ossoff, the Congressional Leadership Fund went after Montana congressional candidate Rob Quist with a $700,050 independent expenditure last month, recently promising there is more to come.
These are by far the biggest contributions the American Action Network has given to Congressional Leadership Fund, possibly signaling a strategy shift for the linked groups. The American Action Network has in the past tended to do its own political spending, for example, reporting $5.5 million in independent expenditures last election cycle. The two groups may have been inspired to use a dead end disclosure funding strategy used by One Nation, a non-profit tied to Senate leadership that funded an affiliated super PAC in the 2016 cycle. One Nation contributed an eye-popping $21.7 million in untraceable money to the Senate Leadership Fund in 2016, including a record-setting $11 million contribution last October.
A second non-profit, the Kentucky-based American Policy Coalition, contributed $250,000 to super PAC Americans United for Values on March 28, which has spent $215,000 on independent expenditures opposing Georgia Republican candidate Bob Gray since then, including $105,000 in ad expenses on the day of the contribution.
The American Policy Coalition earned notoriety last year as the anonymous source behind a $1.975 million contribution to then-Missouri gubernatorial candidate Eric Greitens’ campaign, which was first routed through a super PAC. The group was virtually unknown before its mega-donation, but it has ties to an infamous network of political operatives specializing in keeping political donors secret. Recently, the American Policy Coalition ran an ad on Fox News’ “The O’Reilly Factor” at a time when the show faces an advertiser exodus in the wake of new reports of sexual harassment by host Bill O’Reilly.
Earlier this month a third non-profit, Virginia-based Ending Spending, Inc., got more directly involved in the race than either the American Action Network or the American Policy Coalition, making its own independent expenditures. The group has reported more than $1.2 million in expenditures aiding “proven conservative” Karen Handel. A related super PAC, ESAFund, also has spent $53,327 on independent expenditures supporting Handel, but recent contributors to the super PAC have not been disclosed.
The spending is a return to form of sorts for Ending Spending, Inc., which recently scrubbed its online presence after President Trump nominated the group’s director and CEO Todd Ricketts to Deputy Secretary of Commerce, suggesting the organization wanted to stay below the radar. Ricketts’s role with big money political groups has come up as an issue for several Democratic senators vetting his confirmation, but now it’s not clear he’ll make it to a vote. Ricketts’s future in the administration is reportedly up in the air as he consults with government officials about the process of divesting from his significant business interests.
45Committee, a second political non-profit tied to Ricketts as well as to billionaire Sheldon Adelson, spent $371,852 on TV ads, direct mail, and phone calls over the weekend, all attacking Gray. The group spent $21 million boosting President Trump before the 2016 election. The political non-profit arm of Planned Parenthood has also jumped in to the Georgia race, backing Ossoff with $200,000.
Three other non-profits have reported spending in the race, but in much smaller sums. The Susan B. Anthony List, which is based in DC, has spent $25,974 on mailers boosting Handel while People for the American Way, also based in DC, reported $4,000 in pro-Ossoff digital ads. Better Georgia, Inc., which as its names implies is based in Georgia, has also backed Ossoff with a few small independent expenditures.
Other outside spenders are also active in the race. Since jumping into the race on March 31st, the National Republican Congressional Committee has spent more than $1.9 million attacking Ossoff, the Club for Growth has backed Gray with nearly $600,000 in independent expenditures, and well-heeled liberal groups MoveOn.org and End Citizens United have stepped in to prop up Ossoff. Even more money, some of it from anonymous sources, is likely to spent before the final vote is counted.