Money War

New Super PACs Brace for Mitch McConnell’s Brutal Campaign

As the Senate minority leader prepares for the battle of his career, two conservative super PACs with ties to the biggest guns in GOP fundraising are lining up behind him.

When you’re in a high stakes, tough reelection battle like Sen. Mitch McConnell, it pays to have a well financed super PAC such as Kentuckians for Strong Leadership in your corner. And it’s an extra bonus if that super PAC boasts a former McConnell campaign manager who is a key fundraiser for American Crossroads, the super PAC goliath, and other alumni of the five-term senator’s campaigns.

The Kentucky super PAC leading the charge for McConnell can tap the golden Rolodex of Steven Law, who is one of its three board members: an ex-chief of staff to McConnell who ran his first reelection campaign, Law is currently president of American Crossroads. For extra muscle, the PAC’s senior adviser is Scott Jennings, a political director of another McConnell reelection drive, and a former aide to Crossroads co-founder Karl Rove in the George W. Bush administration.

Super PACs, which can accept unlimited donations, are legally barred from coordinating their spending efforts for a particular candidate with that candidate’s campaign, where contributions are limited. But there’s no rule against ex-campaign managers or former top aides working with these PACs, or two super PACs coordinating with each other.

“Team McConnell plays hardball and they’re going to chase every legal avenue to win this race,” one GOP operative with strong ties to the Senate minority leader told the Daily Beast. “Steven Law is in the ultimate position of power to help McConnell through this difficult election cycle,” the operative said, stressing that Kentucky is the “No.1” Senate contest in the country.

Those points are underscored by the new PAC’s fast fundraising success and suggest Law’s value.

When the pro-McConnell super PAC reported in late July that it had raised $1.2 million in its first six months, almost half its top 19 donors were individuals who in 2012 also backed American Crossroads when, in tandem with its advocacy arm, Crossroads GPS, it raked in over $300 million.

Among the top donors to the Kentucky PAC was the late Houston homebuilder Bob Perry, who ponied up $100,000 and had given Crossroads $8.5 million in 2012. The Kentucky PAC initially reported that his donation came in early June, but when it was noted that Perry died in April, it quickly corrected the error, changing the date to one day before Perry’s death.

Besides Perry, other major Crossroads donors helping the new PAC included hedge-fund manager John Childs, who gave $250,000, and coal company CEO Joseph Craft III , who donated $100,000. Six other donors hailed from Texas, the longtime fundraising base of Crossroads co-founder Karl Rove.

With regard to personnel, the new PAC’s treasurer is Caleb Crosby, who also serves as treasurer of American Crossroads.

Steven Law declined several requests to be interviewed for this piece.

Super PACs proliferated in 2010 when the Supreme Court and another federal court issued rulings that overturned decades of campaign-finance law by allowing corporations, individuals, and unions to write unlimited checks to independent groups promoting specific candidates.

A newly minted super PAC with a Kentucky branding and top McConnell campaign veterans could prove extremely helpful to the embattled candidate. His poll numbers have been mixed, and he is now expected to have the fight of his career against his Democratic challenger, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes. And McConnell also could have a nasty primary fight on his hands against Matt Bevin, a Kentucky millionaire and Tea Party favorite who in late July announced he was going to challenge the senator.

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The stakes in Kentucky are huge for both parties: McConnell is the No. 1 target of Democrats and the outcome of his race, along with several others next year, could decide the Senate’s balance of power. The Washington Post recently estimated that the candidates, the two Senate campaign committees, and their outside super PAC allies could end up spending more than $100 million, making it the most expensive Senate contest ever.

Legendary as a prodigious money harvester, McConnell raised $21 million for his last race; the senator had $10 million in his campaign coffers, according to his latest campaign filings, and is expected to top his previous haul in 2014. Grimes has said she will need to raise $26 million to $30 million to oust McConnell, a priority for Democratic donors nationwide. And a major Democratic ally, the Senate Majority PAC (which has ties to Majority Leader Harry Reid) has pledged to match the pro-McConnell PAC’s ad spending, and last month paid for a spot that labeled the senator the “guardian of gridlock.”

Little wonder that Kentuckians for Strong Leadership in July alone spent almost a half million dollars on TV ads to help McConnell, and beat up on Grimes by trying to link her to Obama administration policies that don’t play well in heavy coal-mining areas of Kentucky. The PAC’s website states that McConnell is the biggest threat to left-wing Democrats' “goal of confiscatory taxes, shuttered coal plants, total government control of our health care and curtailed gun rights.”

To date, American Crossroads has spent only a small fraction of that of the new PAC: in early February, Crossroads ran a low-cost Web ad, attacking actress Ashley Judd when she was a potential Democratic candidate as a “radical Hollywood liberal” who, though a Kentucky native, was living in Tennessee. Two GOP operatives close to Crossroads say they expect the group will do more to help McConnell, including some voter contact work.

Crossroads has another potential super PAC weapon to assist McConnell in a primary fight if he needs it. Early this year, Law unveiled another new PAC, the Conservative Victory Project, specifically to help some conservative candidates fend off challengers, such as weak Tea Party candidates it believes cannot win in the general election. Two GOP fundraisers with strong ties to McConnell told the Huffington Post that the new PAC’s mission was similar to one that the senator had called for in private meetings with GOP consultants. Law told National Review that he did not discuss the idea of the new PAC with the senator. A Crossroads spokesman declined to answer a Huffington Post query about whether Rove or other leaders of the super PAC had been in contact with the senator about the new PAC. And McConnell’s office likewise didn’t answer questions about whether he’d spoken to Crossroads leaders about the concept.

The ties between the senator and his protégé Law—who has said that “most of what I’ve learned about politics I learned from him”—go back almost a quarter century. Law spent almost a decade in the 1990s working in high posts for McConnell, including stints as his chief of staff at the National Republican Senatorial Committee when the senator was leading it. Law was deputy secretary in the Labor Department when Elaine Chao, McConnell’s wife, ran it during the George W. Bush administration. Last year the Washington Post reported in a profile of Law that he and McConnell seldom talk now, apparently to avoid possible conflicts of interest and coordination issues.

But the two men remain very close allies, according to several GOP operatives familiar with them. “I think McConnell and Law have a father-son relationship,” said one GOP operative.

“The fact that Steven would go on the board of the Kentucky PAC means that they’re being open about their coordination,” another consultant added, referring to the two super PACs.

Some campaign-finance lawyers caution that, given the historical ties that the super PACs have with the senator in the person of Law, they will have to be careful to avoid scrutiny by watchdog groups.

“Because of the relationships between American Crossroads and Kentuckians for Strong Leadership, each of the two super PACs should avoid coordinating with McConnell to reduce the risk of further inquiry,” said Ken Gross, a veteran campaign-finance lawyer with Skadden Arps.

Nonetheless, launching a new PAC with a Kentucky patina, rather than relying on the Crossroads groups—which lost a good bit of luster after raising more than $300 million but failing to take the White House or the Senate—could prove a smart move, say campaign-finance lawyers and GOP operatives.

“I can’t think of a legal advantage to creating a new super PAC, but I can think of a political one,” said Trevor Potter, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission and now a partner at Caplin & Drysdale. “Given the controversies after the 2012 elections about the lack of success of American Crossroads and reports of donor dissatisfaction, it makes sense for some of the same key players to regroup and operate under a different banner for 2014.”

Some GOP operatives concur. “I think when Washington comes in and says that a particular candidate is a good guy—that no longer works. Crossroads is the epicenter of Washington and represents everything about the city that the average voter hates,” said one operative with good ties to McConnell. "With all super PACs it needs to be unambiguous that the candidate is pleased with its activities and funding, and this one seems to have the blessing of McConnell.”

That formula looks like what McConnell and Law are banking on to help the senator win another term.