A $2.3 million series of TV ads in June and July blanked Nevada, praising Republican Senate nominee Rep. Joe Heck for his work on creating high-tech jobs and encouraging employment for veterans. In New Hampshire, a $4.6 million ad campaign lauded Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte’s work fighting heroin addiction and slammed her Democratic opponent for her handling of the opioid crisis. A $2.7 million ad campaign in Pennsylvania praised Republican Sen. Pat Toomey for his efforts to protect kids and in Ohio, $4.8 million in ads have encouraged voters to call Republican Sen. Rob Portman to tell him to “keep fighting to repeal Obamacare.”
The ads, which did not explicitly urge viewers to vote for those candidates but were clearly designed to boost their candidacies, were paid for by a tax-exempt dark-money organization called One Nation.
While the patriotic-sounding name will mean little to most observers, the team behind One Nation is the same group of Republican operatives that launched a pair of much better known advocacy groups: Karl Rove’s American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS. And they are hard at work at collecting money from donors hoping to preserve a GOP Senate while keeping their own identities a secret.
Despite the groups’ dismal success rate, many Republican mega-donors stuck with Crossroads for the 2014 midterms. In its July 2014 filings, American Crossroads reported more than $7.5 million raised so far that year. In the end, American Crossroads spent $20 million-plus, combined with $26 million more from Crossroads GPS, and the end result was far more to their liking: Republicans regained control of the Senate and expanded their majority in the House.
But this time around, the money has just not been flowing in. Americans Crossroads reported just about $2.7 million raised as of its July 2016 disclosure. Crossroads GPS, which does not disclose its donors or report its finances to the FEC, has made no independent expenditures at all this cycle and its website appears to be unchanged since June 2015.
While One Nation has spent about $20 million so far this cycle in support of Republican Senate candidates, the Crossroads groups have been largely silent. In fact, $135,378 in independent attacks, by American Crossroads against Hillary Clinton, are the only reported expenditures for either entity so far this cycle.
In an interview last week, Steven Law, who heads American Crossroads, Crossroads GPS, and One Nation, told NPR that American Crossroads would focus this election not on the 2016 presidential campaign but on preserving a Republican Senate. He compared Donald Trump’s recent attacks on a fallen U.S. soldier’s family and fellow Republicans to 2012 nominee Mitt Romney’s infamous claim that 47 percent of Americans are lazy moochers, observing, “I think the same thing, unfortunately, could have happened with this last week… It reinforced a critical negative.”
But the super PAC’s website contains very little about Senate races and attack, after attack, after attack on Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy. One May post uses Trump’s favorite attack line, referencing “Crooked Hillary.” The American Crossroads YouTube feed, once a bastion of attack ads, now features a few clips of interviews with Ian Prior — spokesman for all three groups — and a handful of months-old anti-Clinton spots. Meanwhile, the One Nation site focuses almost entirely on Senate races.
The Altria Of Political Groups
So why the change in focus from Crossroads to One Nation? Robert Maguire, who investigates political nonprofits for the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, said it originally was about tax status.
One Nation, he noted, was originally created in 2010 by now-senior adviser to Donald Trump Barry Bennett under the name Alliance for America’s Future. Mary Cheney served as its secretary and treasurer. The IRS granted the group tax-exempt status as a 501(c)(4) “social welfare organization” — a status Crossroads GPS did not attain until 2016.
“When it wasn’t clear whether Crossroads GPS would be approved for an IRS exemption, Steven Law and several others who run Crossroads GPS took over this group and renamed it One Nation,” he said. “They’ve been one of the largest spenders in non-presidential races this cycle.”
Some big-money political donors have expressed their preference for giving to dark money groups like One Nation, instead of super PACs like American Crossroads, because their donations need not be publicly disclosed. In 2012, after heavy criticism for his super PAC donations, billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson vowed to make most of his future political donations to dark money groups, lamenting that the media’s description of his status as a “casino mogul” in reporting on his spending “is not helpful to the the person” his donations aim to support.
But even with their $20 million added into the equation, the Steven Law-led groups are behind their 2012 spending pace. Maguire noted that with enforcement of the law prohibiting coordination between outside groups and campaigns at its weakest since the 2010 Citizens United ruling, many donors have opted to give directly to single-candidate super PACs like the pro-Jeb Bush Right to Rise USA. “The early adoption of single-candidate super PACs this cycle was astounding,” he said.
But one other factor may also help explain why Crossroads is no longer the go-to for right-wing donors: its toxic brand. Crossroads GPS garnered extensive negative coverage for its possible violations of election law and both Crossroads groups were widely associated with the controversial Rove. Rove and Crossroads been derided even by Trump as “pretty sad.”
.@KarlRove is a biased dope who wrote falsely about me re China and TPP. This moron wasted $430 million on political campaigns and lost 100%
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 12, 2015
Much like cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris rebranded itself as Altria and the private military company Blackwater is now Academi, the American public does not yet have a negative association with the name One Nation.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if we find that One Nation is largely or entirely funded by Crossroads GPS. It’s basically a new veneer over an old group; people might recognize Crossroads GPS more generally than they used to, [so] they took over this other group, gave it a new name, much fewer people know what that group is,” Maguire said.
And, if people start to hold a negative view of One Nation over the next several months, Rove, Law, and friends could easily create a new group for 2018.