As Shane Goldmacher writes in POLITICO, the Florida senator’s top moneymen allies at Conservative Solutions Project managed to stake out a novel arrangement that will allow the sources of more than $10 million in funding for opposition research, mailers, and TV ads will remain forever unknown to the public.
“It is now the model for a how a candidate can inject unlimited, secret, corrupting money into their campaigns to benefit their election,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a campaign watchdog group. “That is precisely the kind of model that we do not need in America.”
The pro-Rubio nonprofit, known as the Conservative Solutions Project, was created in early 2014 and run by some of the same political operatives who would later lead for his super PAC, including South Carolina strategist Warren Tompkins. Both groups can accept unlimited donations from donors, but unlike like the super PAC, the nonprofit can keep its contributors hidden from the public — permanently.
The Conservative Solutions Project operates under the “social welfare” 501(c)4 section of the tax code, which requires such groups not be primarily involved in political matters.
The pro-Rubio nonprofit has claimed not to be directly involved in electoral politics. Yet the group paid for a raft of polling and research in the early primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, as well as in Rubio’s home state of Florida. It bought millions in TV ads that aired in those early states, and it filled the mailboxes of Republican voters there with pro-Rubio literature. In fact, the Conservative Solutions Project was the second biggest TV advertiser of the 2016 campaign last year — trailing behind only Jeb Bush’s super PAC, according to a media tracker.
Loose nonprofit tax laws, and an unusual filing schedule set up by its creators, ensure the pro-Rubio nonprofit will file little paperwork covering the primary period until April 2017 — months after the next president is sworn in. And even then, no donors will be named.
“If you are trying to obscure your activities, they’re perfect,” Robert Maguire, a nonprofit investigator for the Center for Responsive Politics, said of 501(c)4s.
Though a spokesman representing both Conservative Solutions Project and Rubio’s super PAC defends the “social welfare” designation saying the former was not involved in explicit electioneering, the two groups shared staffs and buildings. Their ads also aired only in states key to Rubio’s electoral success — Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, where his campaign’s “3,2,1 strategy” sought to launch Rubio to the top of the GOP field.
The supposed firewalls between Rubio’s political backers and backers of his social welfare rely on cutting the baloney extremely thin, writes Goldmacher:
The nonprofit’s broadcast ads ran through November 22 in Iowa and New Hampshire. About a week later the Rubio super PAC picked up where it left off. The same ad buying firm, Target Enterprises, executed the ad reservations for both the Rubio super PAC and nonprofit.
“They could not have been more blatant with the way this took place,” Wertheimer said.
At some television stations, such as WMUR in Manchester and KCCI in Des Moines, the forms the television stations filed with the Federal Communications Commission listed the nonprofit as spending on behalf of “Marco Rubio 2016.” When that became public, the nonprofit’s attorney sent letters to some stations asking to correct those records, arguing their ads starring Rubio were not actually about Rubio.
“CSP does not make candidate-related, political expenditures,” wrote Cleta Mitchell, the group’s lawyer and a prominent GOP attorney, of the Conservative Solutions Project. “All public communications are centered around important policy debates and concerns.”
Some of Rubio’s rivals, particularly from the Jeb Bush camp, tried to make an issue of the questionable fundraising and disclosure tactics employed by the pro-Rubio 501(c)4. But this year’s slash-and-burn primary season was not well-suited for that kind of nuance, writes Goldmacher.
Bush’s team, in particular, tried to highlight Rubio’s use of nonprofit as they battled over fundraising totals. “Haven’t seen the Rubio news release on frugality did it include the $6 million in secret money TV ads they saved money on?” as Bush communications director Tim Miller tweeted last October.
The issue, however, never really broke through.
“You’re talking about two of the most boring and convoluted fields of law: campaign finance and nonprofit tax law,” said Maguire, the nonprofit investigator. “Trying to explain that in an election where you have someone as outrageous as Donald Trump — it’s hard to do.”