When Crossroads GPS, the conservative nonprofit started by GOP political gurus Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie, isn't dropping millions of dollars on anti-Obama ads, it's doling out tens of millions more to like-minded groups. "The ATM of the Right," Politico recently called Crossroads. Between May 2010 and December 2011, new tax records show, Crossroads gave $4 million to Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform and $500,000 to former Sen. Norm Coleman's American Action Network, among others.
But there was another recipient of Crossroads cash that stood out: the Center for Individual Freedom, which snagged $2.75 million. Among political money experts, CFIF is known for its aggressive legal strategy aimed at toppling disclosure laws at the state level. In other words, Crossroads GPS, which doesn't name its donors, gave millions to another dark-money group whose goals include fighting to keep dark money in the dark.
Spokesman Jonathan Collegio wrote in an email that Crossroads GPS' donations to "effective center right organizations" such as CFIF are intended to "help build an enduring infrastructure on the right—just as labor unions have funded organizations on the Left for decades."
Founded in 1998, the Center for Individual Freedom says its mission is to "protect and defend individual freedoms and individual rights guaranteed by the US Constitution." CFIF preaches free-market reforms, opposes government regulations, and slams labor unions. The group blasts President Obama's Affordable Care Act as an assault on freedom, wants lower corporate tax rates, and demands less government in the lives of Americans. (CFIF did not respond to four requests for comment.)
Talk about a mega-donor. Of the $28.4 million in donations banked in 2011 by Republican outside money group Crossroads GPS, a whopping $10 million of it came from just one donor. That's 35 percent. From one person, or one corporation.
Crossroads GPS, which does not disclose its donors, is the brainchild of GOP political mastermind Karl Rove. Founded in 2010, the group is technically a tax-exempt non-profit, known as a 501(c)(4), that can spend money on political advocacy so long as politicking isn't the majority of what it does. To comply with federal tax law, Crossroads must focus most of its work on issues, not candidates; otherwise, the group would have to file as a political action committee and reveal its funders. Crossroads' critics say the group does far too much political advocacy, and that the IRS should not grant the group permanent (c)(4) status. "The continued refusal by the IRS to reign in scofflaws abusing a privileged tax status has only encouraged even more blatant disregard for the law by these groups and their anonymous funders," Gerald Hebert, executive director of the Campaign Legal Center, said in a statement Tuesday.
Crossroads has repeatedly insisted its activities are perfectly legal, and the IRS has not given any clear indication that it is investigating the group.
Crossroads said it took in $77 million from June 1, 2010, through Dec. 31, 2011. It also received a single contribution of $10.1 million before June 1, 2011, as well as donations of $5 million, $4.5 million and $4 million.
The group shared its largesse with other Republican-leaning nonprofits. Crossroads contributed $500,000 to the American Action Network, headed by former Minnesota Senator Norm Coleman, which spent more than $19 million on ads to elect Republicans in 2010; and $50,000 to the 60 Plus Association, which supports privatizing Social Security and spent more than $7 million on ads on behalf of Republican congressional candidates in 2010.
In addition, Crossroads gave $3.7 million to the National Federation of Independent Business, which is suing to overturn President Barack Obama’s health-care law that expands coverage to millions of uninsured Americans. NFIB reported spending more than $1 million on ads to help elect Republicans in 2010, as well as another $1.5 million that it kept hidden and said was exempt from requirements that it disclose campaign spending.
To push back, ALEC has turned to the conservative blogosphere for help. As PR Watch reported, Caitlyn Korb, ALEC's director of external relations, told attendees at a Heritage Foundation "Bloggers Briefing" on Tuesday that the campaign against ALEC was "part of a wider effort to shut all of us down." She asked the bloggers for "any and all institutional support" in ALEC's fight against progressive groups, especially when it came to social media. "We're getting absolutely killed in social media venues—Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest," she said. "Any and all new media support you guys can provide would be so helpful, not just to us but to average people who don't know much about this fight but are seeing us really get heavily attacked with very little opposition."
Korb educated the bloggers with a handout listing ALEC's positions on a range of issues. PR Watch, one of ALEC's loudest critics, described the handout as "riddled with errors." Here's a list of ALEC statements followed by PR Watch's responses in italics:
"The potential solutions discussed at ALEC focus on free markets, limited government, and constitutional division of powers between the federal and state governments." It is hard to discern what voter suppression bills, tax breaks for big tobacco, bans on unionization, protections for companies whose products injure or kill, and "Stand Your Ground/Kill at Will" laws have to do with free markets.
"The organization respects diversity of thought; it is a non-partisan resource for its members, which include more than 2,000 Republican and Democratic state legislators." Diversity of thought apparently refers to Republicans talking to Republicans. Although touted as "nonpartisan," when CMD launched ALEC Exposed, out of 104 legislators in leadership positions in ALEC, only one was a Democrat. It's hard to believe that ALEC phone briefs on redistricting are totally nonpartisan.
"Unlike in many private sector groups that offer model legislation, elected state legislators fully control ALEC’s model legislation process." As ALEC's public Task Force Operating Procedures" (PDF, p. 8) and other documents reveal, corporate members vote alongside legislators in ALEC task forces.
"Each state legislator and their constituents then decide which solutions are best for them and their states." For the most part, constituents have no way of knowing that corporations wrote or approved ALEC legislation behind closed doors.
Blogger outreach isn't ALEC's only response to the campaign against it. ALEC has issued a handful of statements decrying the "coordinated and well-funded intimidation campaign" against it and pledging to keep pushing its agenda. In what some progressives touted as a victory, ALEC announced this week that it is eliminating of its "Public Safety and Elections" task force, the group that pushed voter ID bills as well as Stand Your Ground laws. Korb said ALEC will soon launch a new website called "I Stand With ALEC" to rally support. "We need to start fighting back," she said.
The progressive groups waging war on ALEC, meanwhile, have no plans of letting up. "Corporate membership in ALEC isn't just destructive to democracy, it's also bad for business," Michael Keegan, president of People for the American Way, said last week. "Corporations that currently support ALEC have a choice to make: They can continue to underwrite reckless assaults on our rights and wellbeing, or they can stand up for their customers by leaving ALEC immediately."
Shehan Peruma/FlickrForget Washington, DC. The real front line in the battle to get big money out of politics is in Albany, New York's capital and a rough-and-tumble hotbed of political corruption and dysfunction.
On Wednesday, a new campaign, Fair Elections for New York, will launch to implement a taxpayer-funded public financing system for statewide elections and slash the contribution limit for political donors. Behind this effort is more than the usual cast of good-government and watchdog types. Fair Elections for New York's coalition includes powerful business leaders and philanthropists, big political donors, environmentalists, religious leaders, labor unions, ethics watchdogs, and more, all of whom say they're sick of the status quo in New York.
As the New York legislature resumes business in Albany in the coming weeks, the fair elections campaign will blanket the state with mailers and robocalls and lobby state lawmakers to pass a package of campaign finance reforms. Specific legislation is still in the works, but supporters say they want the state's public financing system to look like New York City's, which gives candidates $6 for every $1 they raise up to $175 per donor. The reform coalition also wants to lower the contribution limit for individual donors from $55,900 to $2,000, while limiting individuals who do business with the state to $400 in donations.
Advocates in New York have fought for public financing legislation for decades in New York. The state Assembly has passed bills on a number of occasions only to have them spiked by the state Senate. The latest blow came in 2009, when the Senate elections subcommittee was on the verge of approving public financing legislation. Then two Democratic state senators switched to the GOP, effectively killing the bill.
There's broad public support for public financing in New York—72 percent of respondents in a recent Siena poll supported the idea. What's different in 2012 is that reformers have the vocal support of Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D). Cuomo campaigned on revamping the state's campaign finance system. He reiterated that support in his 2010 and 2011 State of the State speeches. "The state's campaign finance laws fail to prevent the dominance of wealthy contributors and special interests in our government," he said in January.
Tom Barrett wants a second shot at Scott Walker. The 58-year-old mayor of Milwaukee lost to Walker by nearly 125,000 votes in Wisconsin's 2010 gubernatorial election, a bitterly fought race in a tea-party-fueled GOP landslide year. Now, 18 months later, Walker's anti-union and staunchly conservative agenda has divided the state and created the momentum for a June 5 recall election. The populist outrage will favor the Democrats, and the polls show Barrett is best-positioned to oust Walker. But first he must win his own party's nomination in the May 8 primary—and that's no lock.
Barrett plans to spend the next month on what he calls the "political speed-dating" circuit, raising money and rallying support around the state, all while continuing to run Wisconsin's largest city. Perhaps his biggest obstacle, though, is Wisconsin's largest labor unions, which have wasted no time slinging mud at Barrett and pouring money and manpower into backing his main rival, former Dane County executive Kathleen Falk.