Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) is the target of a well-funded attack campaign by a conservative nonprofit called the West Virginia Conservative Foundation (WVCF), which is airing an ad questioning the congressman's outreach to the Arab-American community.
The new ad, uploaded to YouTube on Oct. 1 and caught by Huffington Post Eyes and Ears contributor Daniel Harrison, displays a screen pointing out that Rahall was an "early supporter of Barack Obama" and campaigned with him. It then has Rahall -- who is a third-generation Lebanese-American -- saying, "I proudly chaired the Arab-Americans for Obama campaign nationwide group, dedicated to mobilizing Arab-Americans and bringing light to those issues we care about." A narrator comes in and says, "Call Nick Rahall and tell him what you care about." Ominous music plays in the background the whole time.
WVCF, the group behind the ad, is a classified as a 501(c)(4) by the Internal Revenue Service, meaning it's a non-profit that can raise unlimited amounts of money without ever disclosing its donors. It's also allowed to run ads in the run-up to an election as long as they're not explicitly devoted to politics. These types of groups are proliferating this election season -- especially on the right -- and in the wake of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, are even more powerful with restrictions eased on corporate contributions.
WVCF's latest ad buy amounts to $227,800. The group was founded by West Virginia attorney Mike Stuart, who is now chairman of the state's Republican Party and received the backing of Massey CEO Don Blankenship in his earlier run for the state legislature. Until Oct. 3, Stuart's official bio on the West Virginia GOP website listed him as "President and founder" of WVCF:
However, when The Huffington Post reached out to Stuart and asked him about his involvement, he said he stepped down from WVCF as soon as he took over as GOP chairman. "I was elected on July 24 and resigned at that time," he wrote in an e-mail. "Since July 24, I have been totally focused on winning elections on November 2." Later in the day, his bio on the WV GOP website also removed any mention to WVCF. He repeatedly stressed that he is no involved with the group.
Bill Allison, editorial director at the Sunlight Foundation, said that even though Stuart is no longer in charge of WVCF, it's likely the political party and the nonprofit will be on the same message. "You don't even need to necessarily coordinate," he told The Huffington Post. "These guys are all pros, they all have a sense -- if the party starts running a particular kind of ad, it's very possible that that can be echoed or amplified by these independent groups, who pick up the same themes. But beyond that, it's a huge danger that you've got all these folks who know each other. They're political operatives. When you think about on the national scale, you've got Crossroads GPS, American Crossroads -- they're all a bunch of former Bush campaign folks, many of whom used to work for the RNC or the NRCC -- and they're essentially functioning as a Republican Party supporting candidates in the same way a normal party would. The difference is we don't know who's giving to those groups, and we do know who's giving to the Republican Party. That's the real danger."
Little is known about WVCF. It appears to be tied to the state's powerful coal industry, sponsoring a "pro-coal rally" in October 2009. But its website lists no staff names. The site's blog hasn't been updated since January, and its Facebook page had been dormant since Stuart stepped down in July but began updating again in the past few weeks. The site lists no phone number and no physical address (just a post office box). The Huffington Post sent an e-mail through the form on the site, but it went to the inbox of Roman Stauffer, who said that he no longer works there.
The foundation's latest Federal Election Commission filing from Oct. 1 lists Nathaniel Lieberman and Lance E. Schultz as the co-heads of the group. Schultz is a Tea Party supporter and on Sept. 16, wrote an op-ed with another big independent spender, Americans for Prosperity Vice President Phil Kerpen, in support of Republican John Raese for West Virginia's Senate seat.
Schultz also appears to be an active online commenter, with someone named "Lance Schultz" or "Lance E. Schultz" frequently leaving messages on blogs about West Virginia. On a March 2009 post about Democratic West Virginia state Rep. Jeff Eldridge, "Lance E. Schultz" responded, "Eldridge is a disgrace to all West Virginian's and should hang himself."
Rahall's opponent is Spike Maynard, who has close ties to the coal industry and Blankenship. In 2006, when Maynard was chief justice of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals and Massey had millions of dollars in cases pending before the court, the judge and Blankenship went on an expensive vacation together. Later that year, Maynard voted with the majority in favor of Massey. Maynard recently put out a racially tinged ad accusing Rayhall of propping up Chinese jobs, which the congressman's campaign asked television stations to stop airing.
The Rayhall campaign has been circulating a new poll showing Maynard trailing by 25 points, although the Maynard campaign put out figures over the summer that showed him within single digits.
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