Sen. Joni Ernst’s reelection efforts took a hit today in the midst of revelations her campaign may have illegally coordinated with the “dark money” group Iowa Values.
But this isn’t the first time Ernst has skirted the bounds of campaign finance laws.
In the fall of 2014, during Ernst’s initial run for the U.S. Senate, The Washington Post reported that an Ernst-aligned super PAC was run out of David Kochel’s Des Moines consulting firm.
Kochel worked as a strategist for Ernst’s campaign against Democrat Bruce Braley.
Priorities for Iowa Political Fund was headed by Sara Craig, a consultant for Kochel’s Redwave Communications.
At the time, the super PAC was spending more than $1 million on TV ads against Braley.
Ernst’s relationship with questionable donors dates back to 2013 when she was a little-known state senator, not yet in the race for Tom Harkin’s U.S. Senate seat.
A 2015 Politico article detailed Ernst’s “meteoric” rise to her current position and how billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch “launched” her career, beginning with a 2013 invitation to a gathering of wealthy conservative donors.
According to Politico, a political nonprofit called Trees of Liberty — set up under the same tax-exempt status as groups like Iowa Values — financed hundreds of thousands of dollars in a web campaign and TV ads attacking Ernst’s primary opponent Mark Jacobs.
Trees of Liberty was created by a long-time Koch employee. Because groups like Trees of Liberty and Iowa Values don’t have to disclose who their donors are — hence the term “dark money” — it can be difficult to determine how they are financed.
Politico’s reporting, however, pointed to the Koch’s nonprofit, Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, as the group bankrolling Trees of Liberty, and, subsequently, much of the advertising benefitting Ernst.
“That is the super PAC that cleared the field for her,” said Jeff Link, a Des Moines-based Democratic consultant who worked on Bruce Braley’s 2014 campaign. “She owes every electoral success to super PACs, and it’s not surprising that she would flout the law again, because she probably believes that the only way she’s going to win is by coordinating with a super PAC.”
On Friday morning, The Associated Press reported a potential violation of Federal Election Commission laws regarding Iowa Values, a political nonprofit, and Ernst’s reelection campaign.
“It’s a pattern of flouting the law,” Link said.
The AP dug into documents, emails and a strategy memo showing Iowa Values has done more than simply raise money and push messaging favorable to Ernst. The findings “also show Ernst and her campaign worked in close concert with Iowa Values,” according to the AP.
“Senator Ernst has repeatedly sold herself as someone who was going to make Washington squeal, but this damning report makes clear that she’s been more focused on breaking the rules to help herself,” said Troy Price, chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party, Friday morning in a statement. “This blatantly illegal and self-serving conduct reinforces why Iowa’s hardworking families can’t trust Senator Ernst to fight for them in Washington.”
In 2014, Priorities for Iowa Political Fund denied the Post’s report of illegal coordination between the group and Ernst’s campaign.
Today, a senior advisor to Ernst denied the evidence put forth in the AP article, calling the allegations “the definition of fake news.”
Nonprofit “dark money” groups like Iowa Values cannot legally coordinate or directly contribute to a political campaign, but they can make unlimited donations to super PACs, which can contribute to candidates of their choice. Iowa Values can accept unlimited contributions and does not have to publicly disclose its donors.
Under FEC guidelines, the primary purpose of a political nonprofit cannot be to advance a particular candidate.
But, as Starting Line reported in June, Iowa Values made its alliance known from the outset, writing in a press release it would “highlight the work Sen. Ernst has done to fight for Iowans and combat wasteful government spending.”
By Elizabeth Meyer