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 Guardian, Men's Journal, 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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Mitch McConnell's 2014 Battle Could Be the Most Expensive Senate Race Ever

| Mon Aug. 12, 2013 10:12 AM EDT
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

In 2014, ground zero for our cash-drenched, post-Citizens United politics will undoubtedly be Kentucky. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell faces a tea party challenger, Matt Bevin, in the GOP primary and, barring a stunning upset, the Clinton-backed Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes in the general election. As I reported in July, Grimes says she'll need between $26 million and $30 million to defeat McConnell. Only four Senate candidates raised more in 2012.

Now, the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza has run the numbers and made a odds-on prediction: The Kentucky race will be the first $100 million Senate election—and so the most expensive—in American history.

Cillizza builds a strong case. McConnell, who raised $21 million for his 2008 reelection campaign, already has nearly $10 million in the bank. To get past Bevin, his pesky primary challenger and a wealthy businessman with millions at his disposal, McConnell could end up spending $5 million to win the primary. Cillizza says McConnell could go on to raise and spend upwards of $35 million overall. And if Grimes, the Democrat, meets her $30 million target, then we're talking about a $65 million to $70 million race.

And that's before the outside money starts pouring in. Here's Cillizza:

Consider the two national parties. The National Republican Senatorial Committee will spend almost everything it has to bring McConnell back, given his prominence within the party and the amount he has done for the committee over the years. And, while the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has plenty of its own incumbents to defend, beating McConnell might make up for lots of other losses in other places, and the committee knows it. It's easy to see both the NRSC and the DSCC spending in the neighborhood of $10 million each—and that might well be conservative—on Kentucky. Add that $20 million, and the cost of the race is already at $90 million.

The final piece of the spending puzzle is the super-PAC world. A pro-McConnell super PAC—Kentuckians for Strong Leadership—brought in more than $1 million in its first four months of existence. There will be much, much more where that came from. And it's a certainty that Democrats will set up a super-PAC of their own to support Grimes/beat up McConnell. Aside from those quasi-official super PACs for the two candidates, there will be lots of other interested parties who want to make their voices heard—read: spend money in the most high-profile Senate race in the country. Will all of these groups combine to spend $10 million? Um, yes.

Cillizza's prognosticating is a little fuzzy on super-PACs, so here's more to consider. Senate Majority PAC, the super-PAC devoted to electing Senate Democrats, has already hammered McConnell on the airwaves, and it will no doubt continue to attack as long as the race remains competitive. There's also the American Crossroads super-PAC and its secretly-funded sister nonprofit, Crossroads GPS. The president of the two Crossroads groups is Steven Law, McConnell's former chief of staff. You can bet that the Crossroads juggernaut will make itself heard in the Bluegrass State. With all those major outside players eyeing Kentucky, super-PAC and dark-money spending could easily blow past Cillizza's $10-million estimate. 

In 2012, the nation's marquee Senate race was in Massachusetts, pitting incumbent Scott Brown against Elizabeth Warren. That race cost more than $80 million, falling short of the $100 million threshold only because Brown and Warren agreed to a "people's pledge" keeping most super-PAC and nonprofit spending out of their race. In 2014, the spotlight is on Kentucky, and with no truce in sight, crossing that $100 million milestone is looking like a foregone conclusion.

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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.

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."

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