Two nonprofit organizations known for injecting anonymously sourced funds into elections both sent contradictory signals during the recent primaries in Georgia when they helped finance super PACs backing candidates on opposite sides of the “Big Lie” pushed by former President Donald Trump and his allies about the 2020 election. The dissonant donations by the tax-exempt nonprofits — the American Exceptionalism Institute and A Public Voice, Inc. — simultaneously supported one state official who resisted Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election while boosting the challenger to another official Trump unsuccessfully sought to pressure.
The discrepancy between the positions on the Big Lie held by the candidates the nonprofits financially benefited could add fuel to suspicions that the groups are not truly focused on promoting social welfare but rather serve as obfuscating vehicles for donors hoping to stay secret. CREW has previously identified both the American Exceptionalism Institute and A Public Voice, Inc. as part of a dark money network that includes several groups CREW has filed Federal Election Commission (FEC) complaints against, alleging that they acted as conduits for contributions.
Since Trump refused to admit he lost the 2020 election by falsely insisting it was “rigged” and “stolen,” he has sought electoral revenge against officials who either refused to aid him in his illegitimate efforts to overturn the results or chose to hold him accountable after his lies resulted in the violent storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2021. In Georgia, Trump’s push for retribution came up short in May primaries against two of his top Republican targets, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and Gov. Brian Kemp.
After Trump enthusiastically endorsed Raffensperger’s primary rival, election objecting Rep. Jody Hice (R-GA), the incumbent’s re-election prospects were considered dim, with one Republican strategist in the state telling The Atlantic that he “would literally bet my house” that Raffensperger was “not going to win it.” Despite the headwinds, Raffensperger prevailed in the primary, gaining 52 percent of the vote and avoiding a runoff election.
Raffensperger, who testified before the January 6th committee about Trump’s efforts to pressure him into changing Georgia’s 2020 election outcome, was aided in his reelection by a super PAC called Americans Keeping Country First that was formed by allies of one of the committee’s members, Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL). In a memo distributed after the primary, the super PAC’s executive director acknowledged that Raffensperger’s 2020 role made him a “top target of Trump and his MAGA followers” and credited the group’s “nearly $1.4 million television, radio, digital, and mail barrage to improve Raffensperger’s image” with playing “a pivotal role” in beating back the MAGA challenge.
That barrage was largely funded by dark money nonprofit organizations that are not required to disclose their own donors. Of the more than $1.6 million the group reported raising in May 2022, $1.125 million came from nonprofits with nondescript names like Defend US Inc and American Jobs and Growth Fund. For their part, the American Exceptionalism Institute provided $405,000 to Americans Keeping Country First while A Public Voice, Inc. pitched in $25,000.
Despite helping finance the super PAC’s mission of “supporting principled Republican candidates in GOP primaries” — particularly those who crossed Trump — the American Exceptionalism Institute and A Public Voice, Inc. also backed a super PAC supporting a candidate that Trump pushed into challenging Georgia Gov. Kemp. Like Raffensperger, Kemp earned the former president’s ire by resisting his efforts to overturn the 2020 election.
Former Sen. David Perdue (R-GA), who leaned into the Big Lie in his Kemp challenge and grouped Raffensperger into his criticism of Kemp, was backed by a federally-registered super PAC called Georgia Action Fund that paid for an ad boasting of Trump’s Perdue endorsement. The ad featured footage of Trump attacking Kemp for being “a complete disaster on election integrity.”
Like Americans Keeping Country First, the Georgia Action Fund’s 2022 activities have been fueled by dark money groups obscuring the true source of the financial backing. In 2022 so far, the Georgia Action Fund has reported raising more than $2 million from nonprofit groups, including $925,000 from the American Exceptionalism Institute and $175,000 from A Public Voice, Inc. A Politico story about how Kemp triumphed over Perdue, and by proxy Trump, suggests that the super PAC relied on contributions routed through dark money groups because “no individual person was willing to cross Kemp by putting their name on a donation.”
Though the super PACs supported by the American Exceptionalism Institute and A Public Voice, Inc. spent in favor of different candidates in different races, it’s hard to ignore the fact that in two races in the same state where Trump-fueled recriminations about the 2020 election were central issues these two dark money groups put their anonymous funds behind both sides of the Big Lie.
A history of secret spending
Neither the American Exceptionalism Institute nor A Public Voice, Inc. are strangers to spending in Georgia elections. In fact, despite backing his opponent in 2022, A Public Voice, Inc. contributed $72,000 in 2018 to a super PAC called A Better Georgia PAC that aided Kemp’s first run for governor.
For its part, the American Exceptionalism Institute contributed $200,000 in 2020 to a super PAC called Georgia United Victory that backed then-Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA). As CREW previously reported, the nonprofit also provided $8 million worth of grants during its 2019 tax year to groups that launched major initiatives benefiting then-Sen. Loeffler (R-GA) just as she faced an electoral challenge from the right.
Both the American Exceptionalism Institute and A Public Voice, Inc. are tax-exempt as social welfare organizations under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code, which allows them to engage in political activity without disclosing their donors. That ability to influence elections while keeping contributors anonymous is why organizations like them are often referred to as dark money groups. In order to both gain and maintain that tax-exempt status, however, promoting social welfare, not politics, must be their primary activity.
On its most recent publicly available tax return, which covers May 2019 through April 2020, the American Exceptionalism Institute described its mission as being “engaged in public communications and issue education activities related to national security, the protection of life, and tax and spending issues.” Most of its activity consisted of grants to other nonprofits, including several with a track record of political activity like One Nation and 45Committee Inc.
A Public Voice, Inc., on the other hand, reported on its 2020 tax return that its mission is to “promote the common good and general welfare by supporting direct democracy efforts, which give the public a direct voice in the operation of state and local government through the approval or defeat of amendments to state constitutions and local charters, and state and local legislation.” The group reported spending $759,282 on political activity and $2,728,968 on what it described as “issue advocacy communications in support of pro-growth public policies.” Much of that “issue advocacy” spending appears to refer to one of the group’s disregarded entities — essentially a subsidiary — called A Healthy Future that spent hundreds of thousands on ads targeting Trump ahead of the 2020 election.
Little is known about the true source of the funds that both the American Exceptionalism Institute and A Public Voice, Inc. regularly steer towards elections, often in the form of super PAC contributions. CREW previously identified a corporate contributor to the American Exceptionalism Institute, the mining company Nevada Gold Mines, which, according to a voluntary disclosure by one of the company’s co-owners, gave $750,000 to the nonprofit in 2020.
That year, the American Exceptionalism Institute was the largest donor to a state-level PAC called Stronger Nevada PAC that aided Republicans in Nevada legislative races. In 2021, A Public Voice, Inc. contributed to the same PAC and both dark money groups have given money this year to a committee backing Republican gubernatorial candidate Sheriff Joe Lombardo.
One common, if opaque, source of funding for both groups is grants from other secretly-funded nonprofits in the network identified by CREW. For example, in 2020, both the American Exceptionalism Institute and A Public Voice, Inc. received contributions from a now-defunct nonprofit called the Government Integrity Fund, with the former receiving a little over $1 million and the latter receiving $50,000. In late 2020, CREW filed a complaint with the FEC against the Government Integrity Fund, alleging that it was involved in a conduit contribution scheme during the 2018 election, which is still pending.
The American Exceptionalism Institute also received contributions in 2020 from network nonprofits that backed different sides of the Big Lie in Georgia’s recent primary elections. The Revitalization Project, which gave $225,000 to the Raffensperger-backing Americans Keeping Country First, gave the American Exceptionalism Institute $300,000 in 2020 while American Advancement, which gave $450,000 to the Perdue-backing Georgia Action Fund, provided it with $1.85 million that year. A Public Voice, Inc. received grants in two prior tax years from American Policy Coalition, which also contributed $20,000 to Americans Keeping Country First in 2022. CREW previously filed a FEC complaint against American Policy Coalition alleging that it acted as a conduit for contributions when it helped fund now-former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens’ 2016 gubernatorial campaign. Though the FEC’s Office of General Counsel recommended finding reason to believe that a violation occurred, the commission deadlocked on whether to move forward and closed the file without taking further action.
In all, nonprofits that CREW considers part of this dark money network — A Public Voice, Inc, American Advancement, the American Exceptionalism Institute, American Policy Coalition, and The Revitalization Project — as well as two newly active groups whose names are similar to super PACs the network utilizes, contributed $2.675 million to Americans Keeping Country First and Georgia Action Fund. In the case of Americans Keeping Country First, three of the groups conspicuously gave in the exact same amount, $225,000, with two of those contributions occurring on the same day.
All of that funding, which backed both sides in Trump’s effort to punish Georgia state officials who stood up to him, was made in the name of the nonprofits but it relied on money originally provided by donors who remain secret. The question remains as to whether the contributions were made through the nonprofits simply so that the true donors could avoid public disclosure.