‘Dark money’-fueled super PAC spent $1 million on Tennessee’s Senate race then shut down

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Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) was aided by a mysterious “dark money” group in her victorious 2018 Senate campaign. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

An unknown super PAC that got the bulk of its funding from a similarly-named nonprofit spent more than $1 million dollars on a toss-up Senate race then promptly closed up shop less than a month after Election Day.

Within the weeks leading up to 2018 midterms, voters began seeing ads from an obscure group called Tennesseans for A Better Tomorrow, adding fuel to the fire in the hotly contested Tennessee Senate race between Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and Phil Bredesen.

The super PAC reported spending $659,525 for media buys against Phil Bredesen to the FEC on Oct. 24. That same day, it got a $660,000 contribution from a “dark money” nonprofit with a strikingly-similar name: A Better Tomorrow for Tennessee.

Days earlier, on Oct. 19, the nonprofit seemingly tested the waters with a $40,000 contribution to the super PAC. The same date, the super PAC paid out another $56,025Once its work was done, the super PAC closed its doors and its pockets, officially terminating on Dec. 6, less than one month after Blackburn won the Senate seat.

In total, the super PAC accepted $700,000 from the similarly-named dark money operation and shelled out more than $1 million in disbursements reported to the FEC. All of the group’s $944,010 in FEC-reported outside spending went toward opposing Bredesen. One of the group’s TV ads said the former Tennessee Governor “can’t be trusted on illegal immigration.” 

One of the super PAC’s biggest disbursements ($21,662) was paid to the Larrison Group for “fundraising consulting” on Oct. 9, 2018. Blackburn’s campaign also paid Larrison Group during the 2018 election cycle to the tune of $290,115 with payments starting in January 2018 and the last reported payment on Oct. 12.

Although the FEC looks to shared vendors as one factor considered in determining illegal coordination, a super PAC paying the same vendors as a campaign it supports is increasingly common.

Less is known about the nonprofit’s finances. A Better Tomorrow for Tennessee was incorporated in May but does not yet have any public tax records and has little other paper trail or digital footprint. Its close ties to the super PAC it supported are more apparent.

While state incorporation records list the nonprofit’s address as 512 East Iris Drive in Nashville, the super PAC’s FEC records list the nonprofit’s address as Suite 115 at 228 S. Washington Street in Alexandria, V.A. — the exact location of Huckaby Davis Lister, a firm paid by the super PAC, where the super PAC’s treasurer Lisa Lisker is a name partner. Lisker did not respond to a request for comment.

The super PAC’s initial statement of organization with the FEC listed a different treasurer before it surreptitiously updated the form in September, just before the super PAC’s spending began to ramp up.

The initial treasurer of the super PAC was Cabbell Hobbs, a Republican political operative who worked for the 2004 Bush-Cheney presidential campaign. Hobbs took over one of the very first super PACs, People’s Majority, after it was abandoned by its founder Ken McKay, a former Republican National Committee chief-of-staff who lost his job in April 2010 after it was discovered the RNC picked up the tab for a fundraising event at a risque nightclub. More recently, Hobbs was caught up in an alleged coordination scheme implicating John Bolton’s super PAC and Cambridge Analytica. Hobbs did not immediately respond to a request for comment through his firm Right Side Compliance. 

The Nashville address where the nonprofit is incorporated is home to Acquire Digital LLC, a small political consulting firm that received $1.2 million from federal committees during the 2018 election cycle. The firm is run by Robert Sechrist, formerly digital director of the Republican State Leadership Committee from 2007 to 2013, according to his LinkedIn page. The group did not respond for a request for comment.

After its namefellow nonprofit, the super PAC’s other top reported financiers include a six-figure sum from Koch Industries, $50,000 from the co-founder of Home Depot, $50,000 from Murray Energy and $50,000 from Jennchem LLC, a manufacturer of chemical roof support and sealing products.

The super PAC also reported receiving $1,000 from Roger W. Stone, who gave $500,000 to Koch-aligned super PAC AFP Action. The Kochs’ main Americans for Prosperity arm also made a whopping $2 million expenditure against Bredesen on Aug. 29.

Although the super PAC does not appear to have spent on digital advertising, the dark money nonprofit A Better Tomorrow for Tennessee also spent $33,890 on Facebook advertising. All of the ads stop short of express advocacy, instead encouraging users to “Make your voice heard and GO VOTE” in Tennessee’s contentious Senate race. While the Facebook page used the nonprofit’s name, its Twitter account went by the name of the super PAC. 

It’s unclear where the dark money comes from. But Tennessee state-level campaign finance filings reveal that a separate outside group also named Tennesseans for a Better Tomorrow was formed in 2010 to support Republican Ron Ramsey’s unsuccessful bid for Tennessee Governor.

The group received $40,000 in contributions, including $10,000 from James Ayers, a Tennessee businessman who founded FirstBank in the 1980s and grew it into a $5 billion financial institution.

Ayers is an active political spender and has consistently contributed to Marsha Blackburn since 2002. Of more than $700,000 Ayers and his significant others have contributed to federal candidates and committees since 1991, $55,200 went to Blackburn and $40,000 went to her leadership PAC, MARSHA PAC.

Ayers was born and raised in Parsons, a small town of about 2,373 in western Tennessee that Blackburn represented from 2003 to 2019 as the U.S. Representative from Tennessee’s 7th District. Ayers declined to comment.

The other two donors to the state-level Tennesseans for a Better Tomorrow group are convicted felon Larry Bates who was put away for allegedly conducting a Ponzi scheme and James Powell, who owns a construction group in Johnson City, Tennessee.

It is not clear whether the super PAC spending during the 2018 election cycle and the 2010 state-level group are related as there are countless groups with the name “Better Tomorrow.” Optimism for a better tomorrow seems to be shared among many, with more than 100 nonprofits and political groups officially using the words “Better Tomorrow” in their names. Even Stephen Colbert couldn’t resist the trend when he established his super PAC, Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow in 2011.

The close alliance between the Tennesseans for a Better Tomorrow’s super PAC and the Better Tomorrow for Tennessee dark money group highlight one of the main loopholes in the FEC’s new guidance intended to increase transparency of the donors behind political spending.

Even under new FEC guidance requiring groups that spend on independent expenditures to disclose recent donors making contributions over $500 for political purposes, a spender can simply report a dark money group as its donor. This makes it difficult to trace the ultimate source of funding behind the dark money conduit leaving the biggest financier of the super PAC that spent over a million dollars in the lead-up to the 2018 midterm elections unknown.

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