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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Koch-Linked Women's Group Takes Credit for Mark Sanford's Win

| Wed May. 8, 2013 3:00 PM PDT
Incoming Congressman Mark Sanford.

Soon after Mark Sanford, the former governor of South Carolina who resigned in disgrace in 2009, pulled off an upset win in his congressional race on Tuesday, a conservative group called the Independent Women's Voice boasted of its role in his victory. "Independent Women's Voice was the only outside group supporting Sanford on a significant scale, by educating voters about the facts about the Democratic candidate," IWV president Heather Higgins said in a statement. IWV spent $250,000 on TV and print ads in the last week of the election, helping to power Sanford to victory over Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch in a special election in South Carolina's 1st Congressional district.

And if the billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch are encouraged by Sanford's win, they, too, can claim a degree of credit, for IWV has plenty of ties to the Koch political network.

IWV, a nonprofit group that doesn't have to name its funders (and can't make politics the majority of what it does), is the sister organization of the Independent Women's Forum, another nonprofit focused more on policy issues. Higgins, who chairs IWF's board, has staked out a position as a leading critic of Obamacare. She also argues that independent women voters are not destined to vote Democratic and, instead, these women are up for grabs on political and policy matters and can be won over by Republicans—if GOPers get their messaging right.

When IWV applied for tax-exempt status in September 2004, it listed Nancy Pfotenhauer, a former Koch Industries lobbyist, as its president. (She also had a leadership position at Independent Women's Forum.) Pfotenhauer, who is currently a Koch spokeswoman, has filled a number of roles with Koch-linked groups. She was formerly the president of Americans for Prosperity, the Kochs' flagship advocacy organization, and is now a director at AFP. She was a vice president for Citizens for a Sound Economy, the Koch-backed predecessor to AFP. She also advised John McCain's during his 2008 presidential campaign.

IWV does not have to disclose its donors, but the group received $250,000 in 2009 from the Center to Protect Patient Rights, a money conduit for conservative nonprofits run by Koch operative Sean Noble. As the Center for Responsive Politics has reported, the Center to Protect Patient Rights handed out $44 million in 2010 and nearly $15 million in 2011 to an array of nonprofit groups including Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform and the 60 Plus Association, which describes itself as the "conservative alternative" to the AARP. Noble spoke at a 2010 Koch donor retreat (PDF) in Aspen, Colorado. Pfotenhauer spoke at the same retreat, as did Higgins.

Higgins also briefly served on the board of the Center to Protect Patient Rights. There is no public information revealing whether IWV still receives financial support from Koch-linked sources.

There's another curious wrinkle about IWV. In its 2004 application for tax-exempt status, the group said it would not spend "any money" on influencing elections. Yet in later tax filings, IWV changed its tune and told the IRS it spent $772,435 on elections in 2010. There are no tax filings available yet detailing IWV activity in 2012 or 2013.

IWV's six-figure spending on Mark Sanford's behalf was anything but a safe bet. But as it turns out, it was money very well spent.

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This Is How the NRA Lies to Gun Owners About Obama's Agenda

| Wed May. 8, 2013 8:29 AM PDT

The National Rifle Association, which thwarted new background check legislation in Congress, recently mailed a "survey" to gun owners with 12 questions related to gun rights, gun laws, and politics. I use scare quotes above because this NRA document (read it here) is a deeply misleading push poll, not an actual survey—and it lies about President Barack Obama's positions on gun control.

The survey, provided to Mother Jones by a reader, claims that "President Obama has supported a national gun registration system allowing federal government officials to keep track of all your firearm purchases." This is an all-too-common NRA talking point. NRA honcho Wayne LaPierre echoed it in January, saying that Obama "wants to put every private, personal transaction under the thumb of the federal government, and he wants to keep all those names in a massive federal registry."

That's not true.

Federal law has long banned a national gun registry. And the recent gun control bill that died in Congress, which was cosponsored by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Pat Toomey (R-Penn.) and fully supported by Obama, did not create a national gun registry. In fact, the bill expressly prohibited such a registry. Obama emphasized this point repeatedly, and award-winning mainstream media fact-checkers backed him up.

Last January, Time's Michael Scherer pressed the NRA on its repeated accusation that Obama aims to set up a gun registry, and a spokesman for the group referred him to a statement Obama made as a state senator in 2001: "Too many of these guns end up in the hands of criminals even though they were originally purchased by people who did not have a felony. I'll continue to be in favor of handgun law registration requirements and licensing requirements for training." Yet as a presidential candidate, Obama ruled out a gun registration system, and as president, he has never proposed a national gun registry.

The NRA, in its survey, also refers to the "Obama gun-ban agenda." That's wrong, too. Last year, PolitiFact took a look at a similar claim in which the NRA asserted that "Obama admits he's coming for our guns, telling Sarah Brady, 'We are working on (gun control), but under the radar.'" PolitiFact rated that charge "Pants on Fire." As FactCheck.org notes, Obama is not trying to seize guns already owned by Americans. He supports reinstating the 1994 assault weapons ban, but that's a position he's held for many years.

The NRA's survey is riddled with bad information and leading questions designed to make recipients fear the worst. The goal, it seems, is not to gather information but to spread disinformation—and to recruit new members. At the end of the survey, recipients are asked to sign up with the NRA and "tell gun banners in Congress and my state legislature to keep their hands off my guns and my rights!" And there's a nifty form of encouragement for those who do enlist: a free NRA pocketknife.

MoveOn, Sierra Club, and Daily Kos Spike Facebook Ads to Protest Mark Zuckerberg's Dark-Money Group

| Tue May. 7, 2013 8:43 AM PDT
Facebook cofounder Mark Zuckerberg.

Nine big-name progressive groups, including MoveOn.org, the Sierra Club, and Daily Kos, announced Tuesday morning that they will yank their current paid advertisements on Facebook or cancel future ad buys in protest of FWD.us, the dark-money nonprofit that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg cofounded.

Zuckerberg and fellow tech entrepreneur Joe Green launched FWD.us last month in order to give Silicon Valley a greater political presence in Washington on issues that affect the tech industry. A bipartisan, bicoastal team of political strategists and organizers is running the operation, and the group's public supporters include the CEO of Dropbox, the cofounder of LinkedIn, a smattering of rock-star tech investors, and some guy named Bill Gates. The group has reportedly raised $25 million already, and while it lists its "major contributors" online, it does not say how much they contributed. FWD.us chose immigration reform as its first big cause, and it has lobbied Congress to expand the number of visas available to foreign engineers and other high-skilled workers that Silicon Valley firms would like to recruit.

As part of its immigration strategy, FWD.us ran a week's worth of ads praising Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) for supporting more drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve (ANWR) and featuring Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) criticizing Obamacare and President Obama's stance on the Keystone XL pipeline. FWD.us ran the ads ostensibly to buy Begich and Graham some political cover to take a more moderate tack on immigration reform.

The ads are no longer on the air, but progressives are nonetheless fuming over FWD.us' tactics. Protesters recently demonstrated outside of Facebook's Menlo Park, California, headquarters, chanting, "Keystone, take a hike. Facebook dislike." CREDO Mobile, the progressive phone company*, distributed signs for that protest and also tried to run an ad on Facebook urging Zuckerberg to kill the pro-Keystone ads. Facebook rejected the ad, saying it violated company policy because it prominently used Zuckerberg's image.

Progressives United, a liberal nonprofit founded by former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), is leading the freeze on Facebook ad buys, which will last at least two weeks. Other participants in the protest include Democracy for America, the political action committee founded by Howard Dean; CREDO Super-PAC and CREDO Mobile; League of Conservation Voters; 350.org; and Presente, the progressive Hispanic advocacy group. It is unclear how much these groups actually spend or plan to spend on Facebook ads; there was no mention of Facebook ad spending in their announcement.

Kate Hansen, a spokeswoman for FWD.us, directed a request for comment to Facebook. Sarah Feinberg, a Facebook spokeswoman, declined to comment.

Leaders of the groups protesting Facebook said they don't disagree with FWD.us on the need for a major overhaul of the nation's immigration system. Their beef is with the nonprofit's political strategy thus far. "Leaders in the technology community have every right to talk about how immigration reform will benefit their businesses," Feingold said in a statement. "But instead, FWD.us has chosen a strategy that's condescending to voters and counterproductive to the cause of reform."

Nick Berning, a spokesman for MoveOn, added: "MoveOn members are committed to passing a comprehensive immigration reform bill this year, but unlike FWD.us, we don't support throwing other important issues like access to health care and action to combat climate change under the bus to do it. We find FWD.us and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's advertisements promoting the dangerous Keystone XL pipeline and criticizing Obamacare deeply disturbing."

*Disclosure: Mother Jones is among the dozens of nonprofits that have received funding from CREDO Mobile through its customer-selected action program.

Inside the Democracy Alliance, the Liberal Answer to the Koch Donor Network

| Mon May. 6, 2013 12:46 PM PDT
Facebook cofounder Chris Hughes, who owns the New Republic magazine, is a member of the Democracy Alliance.

Once or twice a year, Charles Koch, the billionaire industrialist and one-half of the "Koch brothers" duo, invites several hundred donors, big-name politicians, and conservative thinkers to a posh resort somewhere classy like Palm Springs or Aspen or Vail. The Kochs and their allies discuss how best to elect their favored politicians and spread their free-market ideas, and they hear pitches from conservative activists trying to carry out that strategy on the ground. Then the attendees make a pledge to fund the groups fighting for their causes. The Koch donor retreats are, by now, well known in political circles, and a magnet for reporters and protesters.

What's often left unmentioned in coverage of the Kochs' gatherings is that Democrats and progressives do the same thing. The Democracy Alliance is an exclusive group of about 100 funders, founded in 2005 by Democratic strategist Rob Stein. Members include billionaire financier George Soros and Facebook cofounder Chris Hughes, who owns the New Republic magazine. Matea Gold of the Los Angeles Times was recently given a rare glimpse inside the Alliance's operations, and she came away with a useful, fascinating story.

Since 2005, the Alliance has directed roughly $500 million to left-leaning organizations, including the Center for American Progress think tank, the watchdog Media Matters for America, and the political data firm Catalist. The Democracy Alliance, as an organization, does not make donations; instead, leaders of left-leaning organizations pitch the group's members, and the Alliance recommends which causes its wealthy members should support. Members must give at least $200,000 annually to Alliance-backed organizations, on top of a $30,000-a-year membership fee.

The Alliance recently met over five days at a hotel in Laguna Beach, Calif., not far from the Koch donor meeting at the Renaissance Esmeralda golf resort in Palm Springs. At the Laguna Beach retreat, Gold reports, Alliance members pledged $50 million to an array of organizations.

Two story lines emerged out of the latest Alliance event. One was an intense focus on immigration reform among Alliance members as Congress considers bipartisan legislation to overhaul the country's immigration system. The other big news was the Alliance's endorsement of Organizing for Action, the nonprofit devoted to enacting President Obama's second-term agenda. OFA has said it wants to raise $50 million this year, but it raked in less than $5 million in the first three months of 2013. The Alliance's decision to back OFA, then, couldn't have come at a better time:

Among those on hand to pitch to the donors was Jon Carson, executive director of Organizing for Action, who stressed the ways in which his group is partnering with other liberal advocacy organizations.

"One thing we've made very clear to everyone is we're going to work very collaboratively with everyone out there in the progressive infrastructure," Carson said. "We're going to focus on the pieces we bring to the table and not duplicate things."

[Alliance chairman (and former Mother Jones board member) Rob] McKay said Carson assuaged worries that Organizing for Action, run by former Obama campaign officials, would compete with other groups. "The biggest concern would be if OFA was just going to try to re-create the wheel in a bunch of areas where we felt significant investments have been made," he said.

The pro-Obama group, which had already received some donations from Democracy Alliance members, was recommended for funding for one year. It will be reconsidered next year but was not included in the three-year portfolio.

The hottest topic of the conference was immigration reform, as leaders of the Service Employees International Union and other advocates emphasized that comprehensive legislation could pass this year.

"The partners were really impressed with how close we are on this, and yet how tenuous it is, even at this stage," McKay said. "We've got to get this done."

The full story is one of the better detailed accounts I've seen of the Democracy Alliance, which will continue to play a crucial role on immigration, gun control, and other pressing issues on Congress' to-do list.

Ohio Tea Partiers Are Furious at the GOP, Threaten an "Insurrection" or a Third Party

| Mon May. 6, 2013 9:28 AM PDT

On Monday morning, we published a story looking at what I called Ohio Gov. John Kasich's "remarkable renaissance." Two years ago, Kasich was Ohio's bête noire, one of the most unpopular governors in America. Today, his approval rating has rebounded to around 50 percent, his disapproval rating is in the low-30s, and he's faring better than his fellow governors in the Republican class of 2010.

All that being said, Kasich is still in a fragile place. A Monday story in the Columbus Dispatch says that Ohio tea partiers are so fed up with Kasich and the Republicans in the legislature that they're thinking about breaking away from the GOP and possibly forming a third party in time for the 2014 elections. Seth Morgan, policy director for the Ohio chapter of the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity group, told the Dispatch that tea partiers' options range from "a third party, to an insurrection (within the Republican Party) and everything in between."

The Ohio tea party hit its boiling point when Tom Zawistowski, executive director of the Portage County Tea Party, got trounced in his bid for the chairman's seat of the Ohio Republican Party. Zawistowski lost to Matt Borges, the party establishment's pick, by a 48-7 vote. After losing this proxy battle to lead the Ohio GOP, conservative leaders apparently decided they needed to break off and consider alternatives to the party.

Here's from the Dispatch:

After the chairmanship vote, Zawistowski said he made it clear that if the state GOP did not focus on enacting conservative policies, "we would either find a political party to join or we would start one of our own," saying his meeting with Shrader “is the first step in that process."

It remains uncertain, however, just how much the Ohio GOP and its candidates could be hurt by an insurrection because it is difficult to assess the true strength of tea party groups. A 2012 poll by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation found that about 28 percent of Republicans identified themselves as tea party supporters.

Although loosely organized in 2009 around ideals of fiscal conservatism and smaller government, the tea party largely has been fractionalized with no single acknowledged leader.

"There are potential splits within the tea party itself," said John Green, a University of Akron political scientist. "It's hard to judge how strong they are because their popularity fluctuates. It’s not a cohesive group, but it does have some resources and some talented people who are quite effective."

If the tea party "insurrection" turns out to be real, it is bad news for Kasich. A third party or GOP insurrection could divide the conservative base that Kasich needs to get reelected in 2014. He defeated Democrat Ted Strickland by just two percentage points in 2010—and that was when the tea party was at full strength. Today, as the Dispatch story makes clear, Kasich's relationship with hard-line conservatives is fragile, with tea partiers furious over his proposal to expand Medicaid using Obamacare dollars.

Whether conservatives can mount a serious third-party challenge in 2014 remains to be seen. But if they do, it's last thing Kasich needs.  

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