The Morning Jolt

Politics & Policy

The Right’s Grifter Problem

Roger Stone speaks at the American Priority conference in Washington, D.C., December 6, 2018. (Jim Urquhart/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: A rare single-topic Jolt this morning, as I’ve watched the two millionth “the problem with conservatism is people like you, the solution for conservatism is people like me” debate, and I’m just sick and tired of so many of our brethren averting their eyes from the big, glaring, worsening problem that rips off so many decent, hard-working folks.

The Huge Albatross to the Conservative Movement that Few Want to Talk About

Back in 2013, Conservative StrikeForce PAC raised $2.2 million in funds vowing to support Ken Cuccinelli’s campaign for governor in Virginia. Court filings and FEC records showed that the PAC only contributed $10,000 to Cuccinelli’s effort.

Back in 2014, Politico researched 33 political action committees that claimed to be affiliated with the Tea Party and courted small donors with email and direct-mail appeals and found that they “raised $43 million — 74 percent of which came from small donors. The PACs spent only $3 million on ads and contributions to boost the long-shot candidates often touted in the appeals, compared to $39.5 million on operating expenses, including $6 million to firms owned or managed by the operatives who run the PACs.”

Back in 2015, RightWingNews reviewed the financial filings of 21 prominent conservative PACs and found the ten 10 groups at the bottom of their list spent $54.3 million only paid out $3.6 million to help get Republicans elected.

Back in 2016, campaign finance lawyer Paul H. Jossey detailed how some of the PACs operated and lamented, “the Tea Party movement is pretty much dead now, but it didn’t die a natural death. It was murdered — and it was an inside job. In a half decade, the spontaneous uprising that shook official Washington degenerated into a form of pyramid scheme that transferred tens of millions of dollars from rural, poorer Southerners and Midwesterners to bicoastal political operatives.”

In 2016, Roger Stone founded the Committee to Restore America’s Greatness. It raised $587,000 and spent $16,000 on independent expenditures supporting Trump.

In 2016, Great America PAC raised $28.6 million from donors. They donated $30,125 to federal candidates. In 2018, Great America PAC raised $8.3 million from donors. They donated $31,840 to federal candidates.

(UPDATE: Brent Lowder of Great America PAC reached out, contending that the effectiveness of his organization should be measured by more than just what percentage of the funds they raise is sent on to federal candidates. He says that the $23.69 million spent in the 2016 cycle and the $5.8 million spent on independent expenditures in the 2018 cycle went to 25,000 television ads, 300,000 radio ads, 1.5 million pieces of direct mail, and tens of millions of phone calls – supporting Donald Trump and opposing Hillary Clinton. He adds those pieces of mail and phone calls are separate from the group’s fundraising pieces of mail and phone calls. Also, Great American PAC was the group that had actor Jon Voight, Sheriff Clarke, Sarah Palin, and Rudy Giuliani touring the country in a bus to fire up Trump supporters and register voters. We can argue about the effectiveness of efforts like this, but spending like this shouldn’t be seen as the same as pocketing the money.)

In 2017, Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke said that despite the actions of a PAC that claimed to be raising money for a Clarke bid for U.S. Senate, he was not running. That PAC raised $2 million.

In 2018, a federal indictment declared grassroots conservatives across the country gave  $23 million to scam PACs run by William and Robert Tierney from 2014 to 2018, believing they were supporting conservative groups like “Republican Majority Campaign PAC,” “Americans for Law Enforcement PAC,” and “Rightmarch.com PAC.” Only $109,000 went to candidates.

In the 2018 cycle, Tea Party Majority Fund raised $1.67 million and donated $35,000 to federal candidates. That cycle, Conservative Majority Fund raised just over $1 million and donated $7,500 to federal candidates. Conservative Strikeforce raised $258,376 and donated nothing to federal candidates.

Put Vets First PAC raised $3.9 million in the 2018 cycle; they gave $9,000 to federal candidates.

Earlier this year, it was revealed that David Bossie’s group, Presidential Coalition, had raised $18.5 million in 2017 and 2018 to support state and local candidates in furtherance of the Trump agenda. Only $425,442, or 3 percent, went to direct political activity.

Not every non-donation expense is illegitimate; legit political-action committees have to pay for rent, electricity, computers, the phone bill, etcetera. But when such an exceptionally small portion of the money they raise goes to the candidates they’re allegedly designed to support or measurable efforts on their behalf, one can fairly ask what the true purpose of the organization is.

Politico didn’t specify which 33 PACs they reviewed; if their list overlaps entirely with the RightWingNews list, then the total sum listed above would be $127 million; if they don’t overlap at all, it would be $177 million. That is money that could have gone directly to candidates’ campaigns or other actions that would have advanced the conservative cause in recent cycles. But instead it went into more fundraising expenses, more overhead costs, or into the pockets of those running these PACs.

And some folks want us to believe that the problem with the conservative movement is David French?

Why is the conservative movement not as effective as its supporters want it to be? Because day after day, year after year, little old ladies get called on the phone or emailed or sent letters in the mail telling them that the future of the country is at stake and that if they don’t make a donation to groups that might as well be named Make Telemarketers Wealthy Again right now, the country will go to hell in a handbasket. Those little old ladies get out their checkbooks and give what they can spare, convinced that they’re making a difference and helping make the world a better place. What they’re doing is ensuring that the guys running these PACs can enjoy a more luxurious lifestyle. Meanwhile, conservative candidates lose, kicking the dirt after primary day or the general election, convinced that if they had just had another $100,000 for get-out-the-vote operations, they might have come out on top.

What’s more, most of these PACs thrive on telling conservative grassroots things that aren’t true. Clarke didn’t want to run for Senate in Wisconsin, Laura Ingraham wasn’t interested in running for Senate in Virginia, and Allen West wasn’t running for Senate in Florida. The PACs propagate a narrative in which they’re the heroic crusaders for conservative values, secure borders and freedom, up against corrupt establishment elites . . . when they’re in fact run by those coastal political operatives and keeping most of the money for their own operations.

Perhaps you’re thinking, “Oh, every PAC does this.” Nope. In that RightWingNews study, Club for Growth Action PAC had 88 percent actually went into independent expenditures and direct contributions. Republican Main Street Partnership had 78 percent, and American Crossroads was at 72 percent. That allegedly corrupt “establishment” is way more efficient at using donors’ money than all of these self-proclaimed grassroots conservative groups. Over on the liberal or Democratic side, ActBlue charges a 3.95 percent processing fee when passing along donations to campaigns.

When these individuals get called out for the way they’re spending donors’ money, they revert to a familiar responses of denial, evasion, and blaming the messenger. When asked about how little of the money his group raised was spent on political activity, Bossie’s first response was “this is fake news brought to you by a collaboration of the biased liberal media and unabashed left-wing activists.” Never mind the fact that the criticism was based upon his own group’s periodic reports of contributions and expenditures with the IRS (forms 8872) in addition to annual tax returns (forms 990).

Imagine if instead of disappearing down rat holes and being spent on more fundraising, just $10 million of that $127 million to $177 million sum had been better spent. Imagine if that $10 million had gone to the campaigns of the GOP candidates in the 20 House districts that they lost by five percentage points or less in 2018. That’s $500,000 per campaign. If Mia Love had 625 more votes in Utah, she would have held her seat. Think she and her campaign could have identified and mobilized another 700 Love-supporting voters in her district if they had another half-million?

In California’s 21st District, David Valadao lost by about 900 votes. In Maine’s 2nd, Bruce Poliquin needed about 3,500 more votes. In Georgia’s 6th, Karen Handel needed 8,000 more votes.

If Leonard Lance had about 16,000 more votes, he would have kept his seat. Maybe not every one of these close races would be reversed if each one of those GOP candidates had another half million for GOTV. But right now, Republicans need to flip 19 seats to regain control of the House. Doing just 2.25 percentage points better in 2018 would have saved 13 seats!

What has grassroots donor money going to scam PACs cost the conservative cause? Perhaps GOP control of the U.S. House of Representatives, and now at least two years of Trump’s presidency will be spent on defense instead of attempting to turn conservative policy ideas into federal law.

But hey, tell me again how David French’s “civility and decency” are what’s holding the conservative movement back!

Like the drunk looking for his keys where the streetlight shines, some folks want to believe that the writer who annoyed them the most this morning must be the albatross that is dooming the Good Ship Conservatism. They’re either too lazy, too cynical, too incurious, or too scared to turn their scrutiny to lesser-known entities.

Of course, assessing that folks like David Bossie and Roger Stone are part of a major impediment to the effectiveness of the conservative cause means criticizing people who are considered close to Donald Trump. And for far too many inattentive grassroots conservatives, an association with Donald Trump is a moral get-out-of-jail-free card — even when these guys are acting contrary to the president’s interests and putting their own self-interest first. There are a lot of self-proclaimed watchdogs that will find it easier and more convenient to bark at whatever talking head said something about Trump on Morning Joe that day rather than point out that former allies of the president are using his name to raise money and line their own pockets, diverting funds away from efforts that would actually help the president enact his agenda. If you’re a Trump supporter, you should be livid with these guys.

So why the recent ire at David French? I suspect it is because David is a big easy target if you’re trying to win applause and attract the attention of Trump supporters. David thought about running for president as an independent for about 20 minutes in 2016, and a lot of folks want to believe he’s an amalgamation of Arlen Specter, Charlie Crist, and Benedict Arnold because of that.

David French has jack squat to do with whatever nutty “Bi-curious George” drag-queen reading is going on at the Sacramento Public Library. But if you’re trying to show Trump supporters that you’re one of the good guys and you’re standing up against the weak quisling types, by golly, denounce David French — the guy who served his country in uniform in Iraq, sues universities when they restrict speech, and who adopted a child. Because he’s the real problem with conservatism, not all those groups that continue to send those letters emails and phone calls to little old ladies, telling them that the nation’s future depends upon them writing one more check.

We can apply this beyond the realm of politics, as well. Why is America not enjoying a widespread revival of Christian values? There are a bunch of reasons, but we can start with televangelist Kenneth Copeland attempting to justify his purchase of a third private plane, a Gulfstream V.

Copeland’s excuse was that flying commercial “like getting into a long tube with a bunch of demons.” I’m pretty sure I’ve sat next to the passengers he’s describing, and we all got through it okay.

ADDENDA: Late Friday, Mickey and I released another edition of the pop-culture podcast, raving about Chernobyl, wrapping up those last thoughts on Game of Thrones, a bit about my trip to Austria and irking the Russian government, some talk about writing Between Two Scorpions, trying to figure out that new Netflix film where Zac Efron plays Ted Bundy, and the latest on The Bachelorette — and how the audience does indeed see the women’s competition different from the men’s.

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