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Top Republicans Hit Up QAnon Conspiracy Nuts for Cash

Some of the most prominent names in Republican politics are hitting up readers of a leading right-wing conspiracy website to raise money and build their contact lists. The latest is House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA), whose campaign sent out a fundraising appeal Wednesday on the email list of the site Big League Politics.

Run by consultants for far-right Republicans such as Roy Moore, Corey Stewart, and Paul Nehlen, Big League’s editorial side is overseen by Patrick Howley, a former Breitbart writer who has called Infowars leader Alex Jones “my Walter Cronkite.” Under Howley’s leadership, the site has given voice to an array of fringey conspiracy theories, such as the recently popularized “QAnon” movement. It has promoted claims that the late Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich was murdered in 2016 due to his involvement in the hacking of Democratic National Committee email accounts, cast doubt on widely accepted findings of chemical-weapon attacks by the Syrian government, and tried to explain away a white supremacist’s slaying of a demonstrator at a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year.

Such outlandish content makes Big League Politics an odd choice for mainstream Republican candidates and groups to use for political advertising. Nunes campaign fundraising emails have shown up on the BLP list at least eight times since June. Others advertising on the list include the National Republican Congressional Committee, House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA), and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). At least one of Cruz’s emails, a fundraising appeal sent June 20, did not contain a legally required “paid for by” disclaimer.

None of the campaigns popping up on BLP’s email list have reported paying Mustard Seed Media, BLP’s owner, or any other firm associated with the site. And in all likelihood, they don’t even know that their fundraising pitches are showing up on this email list at all. Instead, those campaigns appear to have landed on the list by way of a leading Republican political consultancy called Targeted Victory. Each of the emails links to the candidate’s or group’s landing page on that firm’s online fundraising platform, Victory Passport. Targeted Victory, which declined to comment on its work with specific clients, markets that service with a deserved boast: “We’re trusted by the biggest names in GOP fundraising like the NRCC, NRSC, and Team Ryan because our platform delivers a better bottom line.”

Ideologically oriented email lists like Big League Politics’ are often marketed to large vendors, which can either rent those lists or enter into revenue-sharing agreements with their owners, then use them on their own clients’ behalf. The vendors generally don’t make any claim to editorial or political alignment with the companies that own the lists. But for a news website such as Big League, which derives revenue from advertising, a buyer as large as Targeted Victory can be a windfall. That, in turn, means more resources to publish stories such as “WITNESS: ATF and DEA Agents Killed Seth Rich.”

Vulnerable House Members Bill Taxpayers For Glossy Self-Promotion

Taxpayers have spent well over $25 million since last year to mail their congressional representatives’ official correspondence. And if that’s all it were—routine representational activity and constituent services—that would be entirely unobjectionable. But the sorts of “franked mail,” as the taxpayer-funded congressional communications are known, that generally make it to constituents often look conspicuously like surreptitious politicking. And according to data compiled by PAY DIRT, vulnerable members of Congress are billing about twice as much of it to their constituents.

Such mailers caught the eye of Robert Williams, the publisher of the Blackshear, Georgia, Times, who wrote a column this week questioning a number of franked mail pieces sent out by the office of Rep. Buddy Carter. None of the four mail pieces included in his column are explicitly political—and indeed appeals to vote a certain way or donate money are explicitly prohibited by House rules, as are all franked mailers within 60 days of an election—but all of them contain the sorts of self-promotional claims that one might expect to see in a political ad. Carter, the mailers promise, is “a strong voice for Georgia farmers" who is “working to lower prescription-drug prices” and “securing our borders.”

“Rep. Carter has done absolutely nothing illegal," Williams notes. “Like so much of how Washington works, however, such use of our taxpayer dollars doesn’t strike as totally proper, either. There is a very fine line between ‘providing an official update’ and political campaigning.”

Indeed, the messages in these mailers, and thousands of similar glossy self-promotional pieces sent at taxpayers’ expense, resemble the sorts of appeals used by dark-money groups in ostensibly apolitical “issue ads" that extol a candidate’s virtues—or hammer his shortcomings—without crossing a line into outright politicking. These sorts of ads don’t instruct viewers to vote a certain way, but they make it very clear why a politician is deserving, or undeserving, of support. It’s a loophole used to tremendous effect by donors and operatives looking to keep the sources of money backing those sorts of quasi-political appeals a secret.

We know where the money spent on franked mailers comes from, and thanks to quarterly disclosures of House expenditures, we know where it goes. According to those disclosures, the latest of which covers the first quarter of 2018, members of the House spent $25.8 million on franked mail and other mass communications (the latter includes everything other than the postal service). That spending was heavily concentrated among members who are facing tough re-election fights.

The data show that the 70 incumbents in districts rated as competitive by the Cook Political Report spent an average of more than $98,000 from 2017 through March 2018 on taxpayer-funded correspondence. That’s nearly double the roughly $51,000 spent, on average, by members whose races Cook does not deem competitive.

That data is public, but there are key bits of information that are not: the contents of the mailers themselves. The House Administration Committee must sign off on them to ensure they don’t run afoul of political prohibitions and other restrictions, but there is no public repository where voters (or journalists!) might go to find copies of the taxpayer-funded back-pats that America’s legislators are giving themselves.

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Dark-Money-Backed Senate Attack Ads Go Unreported

An Arizona political operative at the center of a recent dark-money controversy has popped up in Montana, where a group he’s helping to finance is facing a legal complaint over undisclosed attack ads in a high-profile Senate contest.

The ads aired in Montana during the state’s Republican Senate primary. The group behind them, Principles First Inc., paid for 127 spots in total attacking State Auditor Matt Rosendale, who would go on to beat former State Representative Russ Fagg in last month’s primary. Principles First disclosed about $65,000 in ad buys supporting Fagg, but the group never notified the Federal Election Commission of its extensive airtime hitting Rosendale. It did, however, file paperwork with the Federal Communications Commission for those ads, which clearly state “Vote NO! on Maryland Matt Rosendale.” Some stations declined to air the ad after the Rosendale campaign sent cease-and-desist letters claiming it inaccurately stated he claimed Maryland residency.

Principles First’s failure to disclose those ads constitutes a violation of campaign-finance laws, according to the Campaign Legal Center, a good-government group that filed an FEC complaint against the super PAC this week. According to CLC’s review of FCC records, Principles First failed to report about $50,000 in independent expenditures against Rosendale.

The expenditures that the group did report to the FEC came in late enough before the primary date that voters had no idea who was funding the group when they went to the polls. When Principles First did disclose its donors, it reported just two of them: Almon Bain, the owner of a Billings helicopter flying service, and the Alliance for a Better Tomorrow (or the Alliance for a Better American Tomorrow, depending on the source documents), which chipped in $40,000.

In addition to that donation, the Alliance for a Better Tomorrow (ABAT) crafted some mailers encouraging Montana residents to vote in the primary, and not to “let your neighbors down.” Those mailers listed an address shared by a consulting firm run by Brett Mecum, who previously worked at the Arizona Republican Party under Chairman Randy Pullen, Principles First’s treasurer. While at the Arizona GOP, Mecum was accused of using party voter records to stalk a woman and offering to facilitate an endorsement from former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, now a U.S. Senate candidate, in exchange for a $2,000 bribe.

On FEC forms, ABAT lists a different address: a Phoenix home owned by the father of Eric Wnuck, an Arizona political operative and former congressional candidate who was involved in a scheme to funnel millions of dollars in dark money into California political contests. That scheme far exceeded the scale of ABAT’s involvement in Montana. But despite the hefty fines levied against groups involved in that California dark-money debacle, at least one of its central characters appears to be back at it.

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