Andy Kroll

Andy Kroll

Senior Reporter

Andy Kroll is Mother Jones' Dark Money reporter. He is based in the DC bureau. His work has also appeared at the Wall Street Journal, the Detroit News, the Guardian, the American Prospect, and TomDispatch.com, where he's an associate editor. Email him at akroll (at) motherjones (dot) com. He tweets at @AndrewKroll.

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Iowa State Senator Allegedly Wanted Cash for Ron Paul Presidential Endorsement

| Thu Aug. 8, 2013 12:21 PM EDT
Iowa state senator Kent Sorenson.

A few days before the 2012 Iowa presidential caucuses, Kent Sorenson, an influential Republican state senator in Iowa, caused a stir by cutting ties with Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and endorsing libertarian Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas). "The decision I am making today is one of the most difficult I have made in my life," Sorenson said. "But given what's at stake for our country, I have decided I must take this action."

Making Sorenson's decision a lot easier was, allegedly, the offer of a whole lot of cash.

According to an October 2011 email obtained by the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), an ally of Sorenson's allegedly told Ron Paul's campaign that they could have Sorenson's full support in exchange for an $8,000-a-month salary for Sorenson, $5,000-a-month salary for an acolyte of Sorenson's, and $100,000 in contributions to a political action committee run by Sorenson. (It remains unclear how much, if any, money actually changed hands. Iowa campaign finance filings contain no record of a $100,000 donation to Sorenson's Iowa Conservatives Fund PAC.)

In exchange, the email says, Sorenson would ditch Bachmann's campaign, endorse Paul, join Paul on the campaign trail in Iowa, and provide Paul's campaign with a member list of the "main Iowa home-school group" for "targeted home-school mail." The bombshell email was allegedly written by Aaron Dorr, who runs Iowa Gun Owners, and is addressed to John Tate, Paul's 2012 campaign manager. An aide to Paul's 2008 presidential campaign, Dennis Fusaro, gave the email to CRP, which you can read below:

 

Here's more from CRP:

The lengthy memo sent on Oct. 29, 2011, was addressed to John Tate, who was then the Ron Paul 2012 campaign manager, Dorr not only lays out Sorenson’s alleged requests for money and what he will do in return, but says that because of a major Iowa Senate leadership meeting coming up on Nov. 10, Sorenson couldn’t quit the Bachmann campaign until Nov. 11. In a second email chain Fusaro provided, Benton emails Dorr on Nov. 14, writing that, "with those meetings in the rear-view mirror, I though (sic) now might be a good time to revisit Kent and your brother joining our team."

On Nov. 21, Dorr replied to Benton and Tate that he was going to step out of the negotiations because Dimitri Kesari, a Ron Paul staffer, had gone to Sorenson’s house for dinner.

"As I'm no longer needed to facilitate a conversation at this point, I’ll bow out and let you, John, Dimitri, and Kent work this out," Dorr wrote.

Kasari, Tate, Dorr and Benton did not return calls and emails for comment. Today, The Iowa Republican, a conservative blog in Iowa, published an audio recording of what is alleged to be a conversation between Fusaro and Sorenson in which the senator tells Fusaro that Kasari gave his wife a $30,000 check from an account belonging to a jewelry store Kasari's wife owns. In the recording Sorenson said he did not cash the check.

In response, Sorenson told TheIowaRepublican.com, which also reported on the alleged Sorenson-Paul arrangement, that Fusaro had fabricated the email and that he'd never received any money. The other players implicated in this alleged pay-to-play deal did not comment to CRP. If true, this scheme is yet another headache for Sorenson. He is currently under investigation by a state ethics committee for allegedly pledging his support to Bachmann's campaign in return for renumeration, and he has denied any wrongdoing in that matter, too.

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Retiring GOP Congressman: Fundraising Is "The Main Business" of Congress

| Thu Aug. 8, 2013 11:02 AM EDT

On Tuesday, Rep. Rodney Alexander (R-La.), who was elected to Congress as a Democrat in 2002 and then switched to the GOP in 2004, announced he wouldn't run again. In an interview with the Norman News Star, Alexander said he'd done all he could do in Congress, and he looked forward to life beyond the gilded halls of Capitol Hill.

The most interesting part of Alexander's interview, though, was his description of how fundraising dominates the life of a member of Congress. Here's what he said:

But the time has come for someone else to advance that cause now. I made that decision when one stops aggressively raising money, well then people start to ask questions. And that's an unfortunate part of the business that we're in. But it's the main business, and it's 24 hours a day raising money. It's not fair. It's not fair for the member, not fair for constituency to have to be approached every day or two or week ore two about campaign contributions. So it's just a grueling business and I'm ready for another part of my life.

"Twenty-four hours a day" is hyperbole, of course, but it's nonetheless a eye-opening statement. In making these comments he joins a list of outgoing lawmakers who, freed from the burdens of fundraising, have embraced their inner Bulworth and vented about the exhausting fundraising hamster wheel. In January, after announcing his forthcoming retirement, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said that Congress barely functions because members spend too much time buckraking. "The time is so consumed with raising money now, these campaigns, that you don't have the time for the kind of personal relationships that so many of us built up over time," he said. "So in that way, fun, I don't know, there needs to be more time for senators to establish personal relationships than what we are able to do at this point in time."

Why is Congress fundraising so much? Because the cost of elections keeps rising. In 1986, according to the Campaign Finance Institute, it cost $753,274 to win a House race and $6.4 million to win a Senate race (in 2012 dollars). Last year, those figures were, respectively, $1.6 million and $10.3 million. And the cost to win is only climbing.

It takes a whole lot of phone calls, breakfasts at the Capitol Hill Club, skeet shootings, beer bashes, ski trips, and Star Wars-themed fundraisers to raise that much money. For Rep. Alexander, it was all too much.

"Green Billionaire" Launches Big-Money Blitz Against Virginia GOPer

| Mon Aug. 5, 2013 10:00 AM EDT
Tom Steyer.

Tom Steyer, the former hedge fund manager turned climate activist and big-spending political player, already has one notch in his belt, helping elect Massachusetts' Ed Markey to the US Senate earlier this year. Now he's aiming for notch No. 2: pummeling Republican Ken Cuccinelli and electing Cuccinelli's opponent, Democrat Terry McAuliffe, Virginia's next governor.

Politico reports that Steyer's super-PAC, NextGen Climate Action, will run its first wave of TV ads in Virginia this week. NextGen and its consultants are also laying the groundwork for a statewide get-out-the-vote effort this fall targeting Virginians who care about the climate. GOTV efforts are especially important in this year's Virginia gubernatorial race because it is an off-year election and the year after a presidential race. Voters are following politics less closely, and turnout is expected to be low.

That Steyer would choose the Cuccinelli-McAuliffe race as his next target is no surprise. Cuccinelli, who is currently the state attorney general, is one of the loudest members of the GOP's chorus of climate change deniers. He has frequently attacked the Environmental Protection Agency's efforts to curb greenhouse gases, and he led a witch hunt into the research of prominent climate scientist Michael Mann, a professor at Penn State University.

If Steyer's goal is to use his wealth and today's lax campaign finance rules to force candidates to discuss climate change and to oust those candidates who don't take it seriously, then attacking Cuccinelli is a no-brainer. "I would say there's a very clear choice on this topic between these two candidates, and I think the citizens of Virginia deserve to understand both what the truth is and what the implications of that are," Steyer told Politico.

Here's more on Steyer's big Virginia blitz:

While Steyer's first overt move in Virginia comes in the form of paid television advertising, he told Politico repeatedly that he views get-out-the-vote efforts as a better overall investment, along with digital advertising and other, less-traditional independent expenditure methods.

"Our going-in assumption is that the bulk of what we're doing is field—is enabling the citizens to literally speak to each other," Steyer said. Referring to the Prop. 39 fight, he explained: "Our sense in California was that technology enabled a lot of viewers to just skip our ads."

He added on a wry note: "The other thing that's true, as I'm sure you know, is the traditional way for consultants to get paid is through a percentage of the TV buy…So it's like you say, you know, 'There's a flood in Afghanistan.' And they'll say, 'We need a bigger TV buy.'"

The billionaire freely acknowledged that he was a newcomer to Virginia, but in a whirlwind tour of Richmond last week, he introduced himself to a number of prominent figures in the state political and clean-energy communities.

Steyer met in Virginia's capital city Thursday with a collection of climate activists and another group of about 20 energy executives. One of those executives—Mike Healy of Skyline Innovations, who invited Steyer to Richmond in the first place—delivered a letter signed by several colleagues asking that Steyer use his financial firepower in the governor’s race.

The consensus in that meeting, Steyer said, was that the advanced-energy sector could pack a much bigger punch in state politics if it were better organized politically and more deliberate about pushing the message that green policies can translate into jobs. (And, it goes without saying, if a deep-pocketed out-of-state figure would be willing to deliver a nuclear-level strike against a politician like Cuccinelli.)

Raised Big Money for Obama? You Get an Ambassadorship!

| Mon Jul. 29, 2013 10:03 AM EDT
Matthew Barzun, Obama's national fundraising guru, will become the US' ambassador to the United Kingdom.

When he first ran for president, Barack Obama pledged to...well, you know the story. No more politics as usual, curbing the clout of lobbyists and special interests, the most transparent administration ever, etc., etc. But there's one time-honored, you-scratch-my-back-I'll-scratch-yours Washington tradition that Obama has been more than happy to continue: Rewarding major campaign fundraisers with plum gigs as ambassadors.

At last count, 26 of Obama's existing and nominated ambassadors had raised money for the president and the Democrats. Together, those fundraisers scared up at least $13.6 million for Obama's campaigns, the Democratic Party, and other Democratic congressional candidates, according to Bloomberg News.

One in three of Obama's diplomatic appointees have been political appointees, according to the American Foreign Service Association. That's right on track with his predecessors going back to Ronald Reagan.

These fundraisers aren't getting shipped off to far-flung locales. Instead, they can look forward to a few years of fine dining and nightly parties. For instance, there's Matthew Barzun, who chaired Obama's team of fundraisers, or "finance committee," who was named US ambassador the UK. Rufus Gifford, the chief fundraiser for Obama's 2012 campaign and his second inauguration, will head off to Denmark. A slew of other regional fundraisers have also scored high-profile ambassadorships: Alexa Wesner (Austria), Denise Bauer (Belgium), John Emerson (Germany), Kirk Wagar (Singapore), and Jim Costos (Spain). A White House spokesman told Bloomberg that each of Obama's ambassador picks was qualified for the job, adding, "None of them was chosen because they supported the president's campaign and none of them should have been ruled out just because they did."

Early in his first term, Obama acknowledged that "there probably will be some" political types serving in diplomatic posts. But the rainmaker-to-ambassador pipeline has continued enough under Obama's watch that the foreign service association last year urged him to cut down as naming political allies to diplomatic positions. "Now is the time to end the spoils system and the de facto 'three-year rental' of ambassadorships," the group's governing board said in a statement. "The appointment of non-career individuals, however accomplished in their own field, to lead America's important diplomatic missions abroad should be exceptional and circumscribed, not the routine practice it has become over the last three decades."

Mitch McConnell Has a Tea Party Challenger

| Mon Jul. 22, 2013 12:03 PM EDT

In the past month, Mitch McConnell and his allies have gone after Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, the the Senate minority leader's likely Democratic challenger in 2014. His campaign bashed Grimes immediately after she entered the race, saying she was "not ready for prime time" and calling her a "left wing mime." More recently, a pro-McConnell super-PAC said it was spending $270,000 on ads attacking Grimes.

But the McConnell camp is getting ahead of itself. McConnell now has a challenger for the GOP nomination, a businessman and tea partier named Matt Bevin. An investor who also owns a 181-year-old bell-making company, Bevin plans to announce his candidacy on Wednesday, followed by a three-day tour of Kentucky. A group named Matt Bevin for Senate has reportedly reserved TV time in several Kentucky media markets.

Here's more from Politico:

While the all-but-announced McConnell challenger is believed to be wealthy enough to commit some personal resources to the race, it’s not clear whether he can—or will—fully self-fund a campaign. A key test of his viability may be whether conservative outside groups are willing to give him back-up on the airwaves.

A Bevin adviser, who asked to speak anonymously in the pre-announcement phase, said the challenger’s preparations have been "under way for several months."

"Matt has been speaking with grassroots activists throughout Kentucky and has received a great amount of encouragement and support. This will be a real campaign, and we are ready for the inevitable smear tactics that Mitch McConnell's campaign machine is famous for," the adviser said. "In the words of Kirsten Dunst, bring it on."

Even if Bevin manages to win some support from ideological advocacy groups, it will be no small task for him—and any allies he may have won over—to take on McConnell. A senior McConnell strategist expressed deep skepticism that any prominent outside groups would ultimately take the plunge into the Kentucky GOP primary.

Bevin's reason for running is obvious: He sees an opening to attack McConnell by challenging his conservative bona fides. Tea partiers inside and outside of Kentucky accused McConnell of apostasy for brokering a deal to end the fiscal-cliff showdown in January. "We feel like he sold us out on that, and beforehand he was just feeding us political spin," John Kemper, a tea party leader in Kentucky, told me in January.

But Bevin will need all the financial help he can get. McConnell has nearly $10 million in his campaign bank account, one of the biggest war chests of any Senate candidate. As I reported, Grimes, the Kentucky Democrat, told at least one Democratic strategist that she'll need $26-$30 million to defeat McConnell.

Bevin won't need that much for the primary fight, but it's safe to say he'll need many millions to even compete with McConnell. He will need to pony up his own cash—and all the help the tea party can muster—to stand a chance.

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