Bruce Rauner is a Chicago billionaire who has never held political office, yet this spring he mowed down a crowd of rivals and claimed the GOP nomination to be Illinois' next governor. David Perdue is a wealthy former executive who also has never been elected to public office, yet he too knocked off a string of far more experienced Republican opponents to win the party's Senate nomination in Georgia.
Despite never having endured a run for office, both men battled through crowded fields studded with much more campaign-savvy candidates, digging into their own wallets to heavily finance their bids. In a primary season defined by the insider-vs-outsider story line, in both cases the new-guy-with-money pushed by the insiders and outsiders and got the win.
The pair are seeking very different offices in very different states, and don't seem particularly ideologically aligned. But their campaigns have had two common elements, aside from their success thus far.
First, both benefited from large ad buys by a mysterious Ohio nonprofit that hides its donors and has no obvious interest in Rauner or Perdue's campaigns. The ads have harshly attacked the two men's rivals.
Second, they both employed a political consultant named Nick Ayers.
And Ayers, it turns out, worked for the very same groups that funded the attacks against Rauner and Perdue's opponents.
The connection between Ayers and the mysterious groups from Ohio that targeted his bosses' opponents raises the question of whether there was illegal coordination between the Perdue campaign and the groups. Under the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision, it's not illegal for an outside group — a super PAC or a corporation (including nonprofits) — to fund attacks on candidates, but they may not plot strategy with the campaigns that benefit from their work.
Proving improper coordination is a tall order; some communication between outside groups and campaigns is permissible. But the relationships uncovered by OpenSecrets Blog in a snarl of "dark money" groups, which report little information to the Federal Election Commission, and super PACs indicate at least that key people in the campaigns knew exactly who was spending money to take heavy-handed potshots at their opponents — messages that may not have played well with voters if they came from the campaigns themselves.
And while what happened in the Illinois race wouldn't fit the legal definition of coordination for several reasons, including the fact that the subject of the attack ads wasn't yet a declared candidate, it's evidence of a pattern of activity that was also present in the Georgia race.
"You don't need a formal agreement, but there's got to be something to suggest the person [linked to the outside group] has an actual connection to the candidate," said Richard Briffault, a campaign finance law expert at Columbia University.
In early 2013, Rauner was publicly considering a run for Illinois governor, as was Rep. Aaron Schock (R). Quite suddenly, a previously unknown — at least to Illinoisans — group, the Jobs & Progress Fund, began running a series of ads on television and radio tearing Schock down for allegedly voting for huge tax increases and "a mountain of debt."
Jobs & Progress, an Ohio group, had less than a month earlier changed its name from the equally bland Ohio First for a Better Government. A politically active 501(c)(4) nonprofit, the group is not required to disclose its donors, nor did it share much else on its initial corporate filings besides the name of its attorney, David Langdon. Langdon is known in Ohio as a staunch conservative and opponent of campaign finance disclosure.
Schock wasn't even a declared candidate at the time, though there was a good deal of buzz that he'd throw his hat into the ring. All of that immediately screeched to a halt.
"It looked to everybody that it was a brushback pitch," said Rich Miller, a blogger and local pundit who covered the mysterious attacks at the time. "It was getting fairly clear that (Schock) was gearing up for something like that and then those ads appeared and everything kind of stopped."
After the first round of television and radio ads, Jobs & Progress also sent mailers to Illinois voters blasting Schock further.(Flyer via CapitolFax)
Schock's political aides quickly tried to make the connection with Rauner, but when Schock announced he wouldn't run the matter seemed to fizzle.
Rauner's campaign denied any responsibility for the ads. He went on to win the nomination with the help of Nick Ayers' media buying firm, Target Enterprises, which was paid a whopping $12.9 million — making it the campaign's biggest contractor by far. Another $133,000 went to C5 Creative Consulting, which lists Ayers as its owner.
@nick_ayers fires up the troops at Bruce Rauner's HQ! #ilgov pic.twitter.com/zyKYevyajE
— Chip Englander (@ChipEnglander) May 20, 2014
Along the way, Jobs & Progress vanished as mysteriously as it had appeared.
…to the Peach State
This spring, though – a year later — it sprang to life again, sinking more than $1.6 million into a super PAC called Citizens for a Working America. That group promptly began attacking Rep. Jack Kingston, the 11-term Georgia Republican running against David Perdue for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Saxby Chambliss.
In June, another Ohio nonprofit, the Government Integrity Fund, poured an additional $410,000 into Citizens for a Working America as the super PAC's attacks on Kingston — and ads supportive of Perdue — continued to roll.
One ad shortly before the runoff accused Kingston of being involved with a straw donor scheme to funnel money illegally to his campaign and hide its true source. The Jobs & Progress Fund also bought its own ads directly, spending more than $138,000 and turning up the pressure further. Cloaked as "issue ads" because they didn't explicitly recommend a vote for or against anyone, they urged voters to call Kingston and urge him to stop wasting taxpayer money in Washington.
Perdue's campaign steered more than $2.9 million in ad buys through Ayers' firm, Target Enterprises, Inc. To the surprise of some observers — and the dismay of mainstream GOP groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — Perdue won the runoff on July 22, eking out a narrow 50.9 to 49.1 percent victory.
Man in the middle
Ayers, now a well-known commodity in conservative political circles, was in his early 20s when he was named the campaign manager for Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue — David Perdue's cousin. That connection helped him land a job as executive director of the Republican Governor's Association in 2009, overseeing an aggressive fundraising operation that brought in tens of millions of dollars to support Republican gubernatorial candidates in battleground states — including Ohio, where the RGA's affiliate, under Ayers' direction, poured millions into getting John Kasich elected governor.
In 2011, Ayers became a partner at Target Enterprises, a decades-old media buying firm that has handled major accounts placing ads for big-name Republican candidates. He took a brief leave of absence later that year to helm outgoing Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty's short-lived presidential campaign, but was back at Target by the end of the year.
Named by TIME as an up-and-comer in Republican ranks, with a successful RGA tenure and big-name presidential campaign (even if it flopped) under his belt, Ayers was someone that a candidate like Bruce Rauner would have good reason to hire. With his family connections in Georgia, that was even more true for David Perdue. His public resume didn't include the fact that his path had crossed with several of the Ohio groups that would figure in both the Rauner and the Perdue races.
In 2012, Citizens for a Working America, the super PAC backed by Jobs & Progress Fund that assailed Kingston in the Georgia Senate runoff, spent $455,000 on advertisements backing Mitt Romney. It was Ayers' firm, Target Enterprises, that handled the buy. Then, in December 2013, Ayers' other company, C5 Creative Consulting, was paid $10,005 by a super PAC called Arkansas Horizon for what FEC filings describe as "management consulting." That super PAC has been mostly inactive, but several months before it paid Ayers, it received $85,000 from Citizens for a Working America, Inc., another politically-active nonprofit from Ohio that shares the name (and key personnel) of the super PAC involved in the Georgia race.
As of March, C5 Creative Consulting was registered in Georgia, under Ayers' name.
The Government Integrity Fund, which put $410,000 into super PAC ads attacking Kingston, has also used Ayers' Target Enterprises dozens of times. Just a week ago, Arkansas television station KHBS sent Target Enterprises an invoice for $14,000, the bill for 28 ad spots purchased on behalf of the nonprofit.
In another filing made this month by the same Arkansas television station, Target Enterprises reserved ad time in November on behalf of Government Integrity Fund which has spent $1 million supporting Republican Rep. Tom Cotton, who faces Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor in what is expected to be a close election.
On numerous occasions — once before he worked for either Rauner or Perdue, once while working for Rauner and many times this past spring while working for Perdue — companies that Ayers led were paid by various arms of the same Ohio groups that attacked Schock and Kingston.
Coordination, or just thinking alike?
Activity between a campaign and an outside group that looks coordinated to the average person may not be, in a legal sense; the hurdles of proof are high, said Rick Hasen, a campaign finance expert and professor at University of California at Irvine's law school.
The legal definition of coordination is extensive and complicated, involving a multi-pronged test with multiple sub-parts. According to several legal experts consulted by OpenSecrets blog, there has not been a successful coordination case proven at the federal level since Citizens United.
"The first problem is the the disconnect between the term coordination and the legal definition," Hasen said. For instance, candidates' family members have financed super PACs to help them, and that has passed legal muster; the FEC also says it's fine for candidates to appear at a super PAC's fundraiser. "Second, the test for legal coordination is extremely difficult to prove, especially now with the FEC deadlock. It is now nearly impossible to win a coordination case."
In addition, Hasen said, most pieces of key evidence are not readily available and federal investigators haven't been particularly aggressive.
Employment of a shared vendor, though, is one of many different tests used to determine whether illegal coordination has occurred, according to Briffault, the Columbia University law professor. For instance, the evidence should show "that they were doing the candidate's bidding, either as a former employee or an independent contractor, and it involves sharing some information" with the outside group.
Briffault agreed with Hasen that regulators have not pushed to pursue coordination cases.
"It's very hard to prove in the absence of a smoking gun," he said. "The common vendor scenario probably happens a lot but it's hard to turn it into proof."
The facts in these cases muddy the waters even further because disclosure by the groups involved is incomplete. Jobs & Progress Fund, which bankrolled the campaign that benefited Rauner, is a 501(c)(4) group that doesn't have to publicly identify its donors; even its 990 reports to the IRS, which contain such information as top contractors' names, are due 11 months after the end of its fiscal year, well after any election-related spending has occurred. Super PACs like Citizens for a Working America, which attacked Kingston in the Georgia Senate race, must, by law, reveal their donors. But when the donors are (c)(4) dark money groups, like those that gave more than $2 million to the anti-Kingston super PAC, the disclosure requirement is practically meaningless.
The money that funded the ads could have come from any source — even the candidate who benefited from the ads, Hasen noted.
"It creates donor anonymity," he said. "If a candidate was using it, the reason would be the candidate wouldn't want to be associated with a negative message. Voters don't like negative messages, even though they're effective."
Who are these groups?
Unwinding who's behind the different groups is not easy, and that's probably the point.
Clues point to a close network of operatives connected to the Jobs & Progress Fund, the Government Integrity Fund and Citizens for a Working America, which has both a politically active nonprofit arm and a super PAC.
Jobs & Progress Fund: The Jobs & Progress Fund was founded in March of 2011, incorporated by David Langdon under the name of Ohio First for a Better Government. In Dec. 2012, Langdon filed to change its name to Jobs & Progress Fund.
According to the only 990 tax form filed by the group, there are three members of its board of directors: Langdon, attorney Mark Miller and Columbus lobbyist Tom Norris.
Government Integrity Fund: Like Jobs & Progress, the Government Integrity Fund was founded in 2011 and has three board members. Norris — also on the board of Jobs & Progress – is listed as the executive director/president. According to tax forms and incorporation records, the nonprofit is based at a home in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio, that real estate records indicate is linked to Norris. In recent TV ad buy contracts executed through Target Enterprises, the group's address is listed as an office in downtown Columbus.
The Government Integrity Fund is no stranger to controversy. In 2010, the nonprofit ran ads attacking incumbent Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio. An investigation by ProPublica revealed that Norris ran the nonprofit and that his lobbying firm, Cap Square Solutions, employed a former top aide to Brown's opponent. ProPublica also found that the nonprofit told the IRS when it applied for tax-exempt status that it would not be engaging in political activities, but did so anyway.
In this election cycle, in addition to helping underwrite the super PAC at work in Georgia, Government Integrity Fund has also poured money into its own, affiliated super PAC, Government Integrity Action Fund, to subsidize ads supporting Rep. Tom Cotton (R). Cotton is challenging Democrat Mark Pryor for Pryor's Senate seat in a closely watched race.
Citizens for a Working America, Inc: Tax filings show this 501(c)(4) nonprofit was founded in 2010, using the Columbus address of Ohio political operative Jim Nathanson. Nathanson was a founding board member of Jobs & Progress Fund, but left the group in 2012. The current chairman is Norman Cummings, a South Carolina operative who got his start in Ohio. Recent documents place Citizens for a Working America in South Carolina.
Citizens for a Working America PAC: Legally a separate entity from the nonprofit, the super PAC shares the same address. It identifies David Langdon as its treasurer and refers all FEC inquiries to him.
Citizens for a Working America super PAC has been active since 2010, when it received two major donations, one from its sister organization, the nonprofit, and the other from a 501(c)(4) group called New Models, Inc.. That year, it targeted Rep. John Spratt (D-S.C.), with attack ads; he lost his re-election bid. In 2012, it once again received money from the same two organizations, but it also got checks from a slew of mining and energy companies. It targeted President Obama and intervened in races in Indiana and Kentucky, backing the eventual Republican winners.
So far in 2014, the super PAC has received funds only from Jobs & Progress, Government Integrity Fund and one other small donor, and paid for ads attacking Kingston and backing Perdue.
The sources of cash for these groups are obscured, but a small cast of players seems to share involvement with the three organizations.
The tangle of relationships can be boiled down to this:
First, before and at the same time as he worked for Bruce Rauner's campaign, Nick Ayers worked for Government Integrity Fund, which has the same board president as Jobs & Progress Fund — Columbus lobbyist Tom Norris. Jobs & Progress is the group that attacked Schock, discouraging him from making a run against Rauner.
Norris did not return a call seeking an interview. Rauner's campaign spokesman, Mike Schrimpf (who formerly worked for Ayers at the RGA) said he did not know of any connection with Jobs & Progress Fund, and said the campaign did not track who else paid its top consultants.
"We've never had any contact with Jobs & Progress," Schrimpf said in an email. "Our campaign does not track who else pays our vendors. To be honest, I've never even heard of Citizens for a Working America or Arkansas Horizon."
The second point: Both before and during the time that Ayers was the top paid consultant for the Perdue campaign in Georgia, his firms were hired by the same groups that funded attacks on Perdue's opponent — Citizens for a Working America PAC and Government Integrity Fund.
Norman Cummings confirmed to OpenSecrets Blog that he worked for Citizens for a Working America Inc (tax filings list him as its president) and that he has worked with the affiliated super PAC; he has also identified himself as a representative of Jobs & Progress Fund.
Cummings acknowledged that he knew Ayers.
"Sure," he said. But he refused to discuss if he had ever hired Ayers, saying, "I don't see what that has to do with anything."
Asked about his group's funding of Arkansas Horizon, which did employ Ayers, Cummings responded only, "You have our filings." He referred additional questions to Langdon, who did not return a call seeking comment.
Perdue's campaign did not return this reporter's calls.
As for Ayers, we called to ask about all these connections, but his assistant said he was traveling and unavailable for comment. He did not respond to emailed questions.