Like sharks sensing blood in the water, conservative political operatives have set out to cash in on the mounting anger among both populist Republican voters and big GOP donors, sometimes pulling in big salaries for themselves while doing little to help candidates or elected officials.
The Republican National Committee’s record $100 million haul so far this year, a take fueled by low-dollar donors loyal to President Trump, has raised GOP hopes of a windfall on the far right. In some cases, as with the RNC’s swelling coffers, this will assist Trump. But some GOP operatives raising money off Trump’s name are actually backing candidates whom he opposes, or simply lining their own pockets as they stoke GOP extremism and infighting.
Take Citizens for Trump, which despite its name endorsed Christian rightist Roy Moore in the GOP Alabama Senate primary, even as Trump publicly backed Moore’s opponent, Luther Strange. A mysterious group that has filed no public disclosures with the Federal Election Commission, Citizens for Trump is also eyeing contests in Florida and Ohio, and told BuzzFeed that GOP divisions might once again place it at odds with Trump.
Another group that spent $21 million to support Trump in last year’s election, Rebuilding America Now, has raised more than $1 million this year but spent zero on contributions to candidates or campaign expenditures. A super PAC that faces no contribution limits, the group has spent hundreds of thousands on travel, meals and fat salaries for its chief organizers, both former Trump campaign aides. This includes $385,000 in the first six months of this year for Laurance Gay, and $210,000 for Kenneth McKay, both for “political strategy consulting.” Neither one could be reached for comment.
The generous salaries that consultants scoop up from unrestricted super PACs and politically active tax-exempt groups are nothing new, and plenty of Democratic operatives have profited handsomely off exploding election receipts in the post-Citizens United era. But former White House operative Steve Bannon’s self-described “war” on the Republican establishment, and his pledge to mount primary challenges to every GOP Senate incumbent except Ted Cruz has drawn a growing phalanx of GOP groups that see his renegade insurgency as a cash cow.
In Alabama, Moore was vastly outspent by GOP party committees and outside groups allied with Strange, but nevertheless drew the backing of a dozen conservative organizations that spent close to $900,000 on his winning campaign. These included the Great America PAC and an allied group, the Great America Alliance, which spent more than $140,000 to support Moore. The Great America PAC spent $28 million to help elect Trump last year, and paid $306,336 to its lead organizer, longtime GOP operative Ed Rollins.
This year the Great America PAC is gearing up to back several Bannon-allied GOP primary challengers, despite Trump’s recent defense of some GOP incumbents. The PAC’s candidates include Arizona state senator Kelli Ward, who is taking on Senator Jeff Flake, a rare Republican Trump critic, in the primary. The PAC pays $10,000 a month to Rollins for “strategic consulting,” putting him on track to net more than $100,000 this year from that effort alone. A pair of Ward aides quit her campaign on the eve of Bannon’s appearance at a fundraiser this week, complaining to The Daily Beast that she would fail to “drain the swamp,” and was “bringing in people from the political consultant class.”
Bannon himself is on a big money chase. The Breitbart News chief already has hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer and his daughter, Rebekah, in his corner, and in recent weeks he has criss-crossed the country to meet with such GOP sugar daddies as venture capitalist John Childs, Wyoming investor Foster Friess, and Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus.
Bannon says his goal is to oust senators who don’t back Trump’s agenda, but that doesn’t explain why he’s ginning up challenges to incumbent senators, such as Utah’s Orrin Hatch, who have largely supported Trump. Bannon’s intent is to blow up the Republican Party so he can remake it in his white nationalist image. But he may also have an eye on the bottom line. Breitbart’s ad revenue has fallen by 51 percent amid a successful campaign by an anonymous group called Sleeping Giants to convince major advertisers to boycott the site.
Bannon has a long history of making money off right-wing causes and campaigns, and their wealthy benefactors, including the Mercers. Over the past decade, Bannon tapped some two dozen nonprofits and private companies to help underwrite his conservative documentaries and projects, in the process pocketing some $7 million, a Washington Post investigation disclosed. GOP leaders have long opposed all contribution and spending limits on campaign committees and tax-exempt groups, such as the ones that paid Bannon. Now Republicans must live with the consequences, as the big money they unleashed enriches and empowers their challengers—and, just possibly, their destroyers.