On June 2, the American Conservative Union (ACU) endorsed Tennessee state senator Brian Kelsey in the Republican primary in the state’s 8th Congressional District. A month and a half later, on July 20, the ACU, the influential right-wing group that hosts the Conservative Political Action Conference every year, announced it was backing up its endorsement with a flight of radio ads encouraging votes for Sen. Kelsey as the only “proven conservative leader” in the race. He ultimately lost the race anyway.
Most of the money to pay for the ACU’s pro-Kelsey ads appears to have come from Sen. Kelsey himself, though it was first routed through a series of political action committees (PACs). On July 11, Sen. Kelsey contributed $106,341 to a Tennessee state-level PAC called the Standard Club PAC. He was the only donor during that reporting period and the first since April, according to Tennessee campaign finance records. Without the cash infusion, the PAC wouldn’t have been able to cover the contributions it was about to make as it began the reporting period with less than $28,000 cash on hand.
The super PAC in turn gave $36,000 to the ACU on July 21.
According to Federal Election Commission (FEC) records, the ACU then spent $80,000 on the ads between July 20 and July 26. Though it’s possible the ACU used other funds for its ads, it certainly looks like $66,000 for the ad buy, or 82 percent of the total, originally came from Sen. Kelsey.
It’s unclear exactly why Sen. Kelsey passed the money to the ACU via the Standard Club PAC instead of giving it directly to his own campaign, which could run its own ads. The effect, however, is clear. Sen. Kelsey got a third-party validator to tout his conservative credentials over the radio waves, an important asset in a Republican primary.
Beyond the circuitous route the money took from Sen. Kelsey to the ACU, there are questions about how all the money he gave to the Standard Club PAC was used. As noted above, the Standard Club PAC reported giving $97,000 to Citizens 4 Ethics in Government, but one of the contributions, $60,000, is not reflected in the super PAC’s report to the FEC that covers the same period. In effect, the $60,000 is unaccounted for. Conceivably, that money could have also ended up in the ACU’s bank account, but as a tax-exempt social welfare non-profit the ACU is not required to disclose its donors.
This wouldn’t be the first time that the ACU has been involved in questionable movements of money related to elections. In 2015, CREW filed complaints with the FEC and the Department of Justice over a $1.71 million contribution the ACU gave to a super PAC in 2012, which appeared to be a conduit contribution. On an amended tax return, ACU admitted that the massive contribution did not come from the ACU’s funds and the organization acted as a pass-through for someone else’s money. The FEC has yet to announce any action on the complaint, and the true source of the contribution has never been revealed.
A few days after the ACU started its radio ad campaign, the Memphis Daily News reported on another non-disclosing non-profit entering the 8th Congressional district’s Republican primary with “radio and mail attack ads” targeting several candidates. One of the targets, Sen. Kelsey, complained about “shady groups with secret donors.”
The newspaper noted that he also “touted his endorsement by the American Conservative Union.” That was another group with “secret donors,” but one of them appears to have been not-so-secret to Sen. Kelsey. It was him.