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Karl Rove's Network Lurks Behind Local Kentucky Groups Backing Mitch McConnell

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MITCH MCCONNELL CROSSROADS
Two Kentucky groups backing Sen. Mitch McConnell's reelection are deeply connected to the Crossroads groups founded by Karl Rove. | Kris Connor via Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- Steven Law, the head of the Crossroads groups founded by Republican strategist Karl Rove, has declared that reelecting Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) this year is a top priority. It's paramount to Crossroads' 2014 efforts to win back GOP control of the Senate and fight off the insurgent tea party. And for Law himself, who used to work for the Republican Senate leader, it's "personal."

Yet other than a web video attacking would-be challenger Ashley Judd in early 2013, Crossroads has not run any ads to support McConnell.

Instead, two local groups -- Kentuckians for Strong Leadership, a brand-new super PAC, and the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition, a repurposed nonprofit -- have spent more than $2 million to boost McConnell in his contests against tea party challenger Matt Bevin and Democratic opponent Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Kentucky secretary of state.

Behind the scenes, Crossroads' strategy becomes clearer. Deep connections between the Rove organization and the two Kentucky groups show that, despite their locally flavored names, the real power behind the latter groups emanates from the offices of Crossroads-linked consultants in Washington and Virginia.

Both pro-McConnell groups rely heavily on Crossroads' list of elite political consultants. Law sits on the board of Kentuckians for Strong Leadership, which -- according to Scott Jennings, a former McConnell aide hired to advise both pro-McConnell groups -- "makes decisions for the organization, including how to expend funds."

And the majority of the money reaching Kentuckians for Strong Leadership, which as a super PAC must disclose its donors, comes from Crossroads' donor network.

Crossroads declined to comment on the connections between itself and the Kentucky groups.

After the 2012 election, Rove and the Crossroads groups were excoriated by tea party and other conservative activists, who said Crossroads' massive spending had led only to big losses for Republicans and big paychecks for their consultants. In a post on his blog RedState, commentator Erick Erickson called the consultants linked to Crossroads -- and now used by the pro-McConnell groups -- "the root of all evil" in the Republican Party.

Crossroads was further assailed by conservatives after announcing its Conservative Victory Project, an effort to protect establishment GOP candidates from tea party challengers in the upcoming elections.

The combination of electoral defeat, consultant enrichment and anti-insurgent initiative tainted the brand of Crossroads and pushed it to find new ways to support candidates without its name attached.

Matt Hoskins, president of the Senate Conservatives Fund, a national PAC that backs Bevin, said the "hoops" that Crossroads is jumping through to mask its support for McConnell are both "comical" and "insulting" to Kentucky voters.

"They're trying to hide their involvement, but anybody who's paying attention knows that those entities are controlled by Crossroads," Hoskins told The Huffington Post.

Those hoops may be necessary, however. A New York Times report found that Republican candidates are worried "donors will not contribute to a super PAC if it is connected to Crossroads." To blunt this concern, Crossroads is pushing to set up groups similar to Kentuckians for Strong Leadership and the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition in other states "where its brand may be less appealing to voters or donors."

Crossroads donors have already flocked to Kentuckians for Strong Leadership.

In 2013, past Crossroads donors and their family members made up 66 percent of all the funds raised by the new Kentucky super PAC. The contributors included investor John Childs, hedge fund billionaire Ken Griffin, beer distributor John Nau, coal magnate Joseph Craft and quant investor W. Ed Bosarge.

Less is known about where the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition gets its money. The nonprofit, which is not bound by donor disclosure laws, "does not comment on its fundraising operation," Jennings said.

The coalition was founded in 2008, but until last year had never passed the $25,000 fundraising threshold required to file a full report on its activities with the Internal Revenue Service. Its last mention in the Kentucky press had come in 2009. Then in 2013, upon hiring Jennings, the group relaunched its website and began airing expensive television ads promoting McConnell's opposition to Obamacare, his support for the state's coal industry and his ties to tea party favorite Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).

Jennings said that the coalition's board members are "grateful to have the resources to communicate with Kentuckians about critical issues facing the Commonwealth." So far, those communications have been limited to pro-McConnell TV and radio advertising.

The extent of the Kentucky groups' connections to and overlapping relationships with Crossroads are even more evident in their spending. Crossroads-linked consultants and vendors accounted for 84 percent of all spending by Kentuckians for Strong Leadership last year. The only known recipient of funds from the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition, which faces very limited disclosure requirements about its spending, was the closely tied Crossroads vendor Main Street Media Group.

The very first expense noted by Kentuckians for Strong Leadership did not come from its own coffers, but from the wallet of the super PAC American Crossroads. On April 2, 2013, four days after the Kentucky group filed registration papers with the Federal Election Commission, American Crossroads paid GoDaddy.com to register the new super PAC's website. Kentuckians for Strong Leadership reimbursed American Crossroads for the domain name registration on April 25.

TV and radio advertising dominates the budgets of both pro-McConnell groups. Kentuckians for Strong Leadership has reported spending $1.2 million on advertising buys, while the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition has announced ad spending of more than $875,000.

These ads were actually placed by the aforementioned Main Street Media Group, a firm with no website whose address is a P.O. box in the Washington suburb of Alexandria, Va. Reports on political advertising buys for Kentuckians for Strong Leadership filed with local television stations in Louisville, Ky., and made available by the Federal Communications Commission reveal the names of the ad buyers: Emily Milhoan and Stephanie Maroney, employees of Crossroads Media.

Similar advertising buy filings for the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition show that the nonprofit group has also contracted with Main Street Media Group.

Main Street Media Group and Crossroads Media, which did not respond to a request for comment, are closely connected.

Crossroads Media was founded more than a decade ago, but since 2010 it has contracted almost exclusively with American Crossroads, its political nonprofit arm Crossroads GPS and their funding recipients. Its founder, Michael Dubke, also runs a consulting firm with Crossroads political director Carl Forti. The liberal watchdog group PR Watch has called Crossroads Media the "in-house ad purchasing agency for Rove's political empire."

Main Street Media Group appears to have been created in 2012 to handle some of the ad purchases for Crossroads Media. It has also made ad buys for three nonprofits -- Americans for Tax Reform, the Center for Individual Freedom and the National Federation of Independent Business -- that received funding from Crossroads GPS.

Other Crossroads-linked political consultants that have been paid by Kentuckians for Strong Leadership include Upgrade Films, TargetPoint Consulting and Targeted Victory. Both pro-McConnell groups have hired Crossroads treasurer Caleb Crosby to manage their paperwork.

Nearly all of these consultants operate out of the same office in Alexandria, Va. In his post-2012 election diatribe, RedState's Erickson pointed to that address as the location where the Republican Party was "bled to death by charlatan consultants making millions off the party, its donors, and the grassroots."

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