A Republican fundraising committee poured hundreds of thousands of dollars this year into ten Senate campaigns, more than half of which failed to fully or properly disclose the committee’s involvement, federal records show.
The committee, called Winsome Leaders, seems to have complied with Federal Election Commission (FEC) guidelines in its filings, but seven of its ten Senate Republican candidates appear to have discrepancies in their campaign filings about the committee.
With control of the Senate at stake, any one race could tip the balance, and some of the money behind Winsome Leaders comes from controversial sources, whose roles might have drawn attention had they been fully disclosed and recognized. Even despite the discrepancies--which skewed FEC data to minimize the group’s role--Winsome Leaders ranked among the top committees donating to GOP candidates in some close races.
Winsome Leaders technically consisted of two joint fundraising committees (JFCs). Winsome Leaders I operated during the primaries and the start of the general election. Since October, Winsome Leaders II has taken over. Both JFCs are run by a Virginia political-accounting firm called Koch & Hoos. Partner Timothy Koch serves as the Winsome Leaders treasurer. (Koch reportedly has worked on campaigns tied to the Koch brothers but is not a relation.)
The ten Senate candidates who authorized Winsome Leaders to raise funds for them are Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), Mike Braun (R-IN), Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-ND), state Sen. Karin Housley (R-MN), John James (R-MI), state Attorney General Josh Hawley (R-MO), Rep. Martha McSally (R-AZ), state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey (R-WV), state Auditor Matt Rosendale (R-MT), and state Sen. Leah Vukmir (R-WI).
Hawley and McSally were both contacted by the FEC to rectify their failure to properly disclose Winsome Leaders’ involvement. The Young Turks has identified additional apparent discrepancies in filings by Braun, Housley, James, Rosendale, and Vukmir.
Some of the discrepancies are relatively minor and typical of occasional errors that occur in the course of any large campaign. Some of the discrepancies obscure the role Winsome Leaders played in individual campaigns. Cumulatively, the discrepancies tend to reduce Winsome Leaders’ profile in the elections overall, as well as in some specific races.
Winsome Leaders had only 13 donors, most of whom belonged to three wealthy families with a history of funding conservative Christian causes. One of the largest funders helped start a business that outsourced American jobs so he could convert workers overseas to Christianity.
The first two donors to Winsome Leaders were Paavo and Marguerite Ensio of Arizona. Paavo, a mineral-company executive, has a history of conservative activism.
In 2012, the Arizona Daily Star identified the Ensios as southern Arizona’s biggest GOP donors that year. During that election cycle, the Ensios donated $546,000. Of that amount, $475,000 went to a Family Research Council super PAC. Paavo at the time sat on the board of the Family Research Council.
The largest individual Winsome Leaders donors are California investor Ken Eldred and his wife, who together gave $97,400. Eldred attributes his success in business to following Biblical principles.
Eldred’s father was a top executive at Hewlett-Packard in the 1970s, and Eldred’s first success was in the burgeoning field of computers. He has founded, invested in, and helped to lead a number of companies since then.
One Eldred venture which might have proved controversial was Epicenter Technologies. ET was a call center based in India, that started off as a collections agency. “The outsourcing of call centers provided a potentially enormous business opportunity,” Eldred said.
Because ET does not disclose its client companies, it’s not clear how many call center jobs relocated from the US to India as a result of ET’s work.
“We are providing a top-flight service that appears to originate in the United States,” Eldred said. He said that he used the company to try to convert Indian workers to Christianity. Job applicants were pre-screened by Christian groups.
Eldred has also been active in politics. He reportedly is a founder of United in Purpose, a conservative Christian group that funds the Values Voter Summit, and said that the 2018 elections are about “judges, judges, judges.” Federal judicial nominations must be confirmed by the Senate.
Eldred once co-signed a letter opposing bi-partisan immigration reform. In 2011, Eldred helped organize a fundraiser for Rick Perry’s presidential effort and last year gave the maximum allowed to the campaign of Alabama Senate hopeful Judge Roy Moore. Eldred’s business partner and “brother in Christ” John Mumford was listed alongside Eldred on the Perry fundraiser’s invitation.
Mumford is the head of a third family backing Winsome Leaders. Five Mumfords account for more than $140,000, almost half of Winsome Leaders’ receipts.
Even some of the smaller donors appear to have a history of right-wing activism. One who gave $10,000 to Winsome Leaders reportedly donated $50,000 to support California’s Proposition 8 banning gay marriage.
But anyone looking at campaign filings for most of Winsome Leaders’ ten Senate candidates will get less than a full picture of the JFC’s involvement and the nature of its financial backing. That’s because most of the candidates had filing discrepancies specifically involving Winsome Leaders.
McSally, for instance, in her original campaign filing on June 14, failed to disclose that she had authorized Winsome Leaders to raise funds on her behalf. In September, after she won her primary, the FEC sent her campaign a letter requesting “information [about Winsome Leaders] essential to full public disclosure of your federal election campaign finances.” McSally filed a new statement disclosing both Winsome Leaders JFCs as authorized fundraisers on Sept. 24.
Hawley of MIssouri got a similar letter from the FEC in September about his failure to disclose Winsome Leaders’ role in his campaign prior to his Aug. 7 primary. On Sept. 14, Hawley submitted another statement identifying Winsome Leaders I as an authorized JFC.
Despite a $2,613.93 Winsome Leaders II donation, however, Hawley has yet to disclose the second JFC as an authorized fundraiser.
A TYT search of FEC records shows other disclosure failures not yet flagged by FEC requests for additional information. On Aug. 29, Winsome Leaders II disclosed Braun of Indiana as an authorizing candidate. But in his own filings, Braun never disclosed the JFC, despite filing an amended statement of candidacy on Oct. 15, and despite reporting $14,833.28 in transfers from Winsome Leaders II two days later.
Although Winsome Leaders II does appear as a donor in Braun’s list of contributions, his failure to disclose it as a JFC in his statement of candidacy means it doesn’t register in the FEC’s summary for Braun. So, Winsome Leaders II doesn’t appear in the FEC’s list of Braun’s JFC donations and his total amounts for JFC donations are lower, while individual donations appear higher.
Vukmir of Wisconsin was also disclosed by Winsome Leaders II on Aug. 29, but she never filed the paperwork that would make Winsome Leaders II apparent to anyone scanning her donor summaries. Winsome Leaders II doesn’t appear in either of her candidacy statements.
Even though Winsome Leaders II reported that it cut Vukmir a check for $8597 on Oct. 16, Vukmir didn’t disclose it in her pre-general report, which covers donations through Oct. 17. The donation is listed in a special 48-hour report for last-minute filings submitted on Oct. 31. But that form doesn’t identify the four Winsome Leaders donors responsible; listing them, instead, as if they were individual donors who gave directly to her.
Some of the discrepancies were identified by the Campaign Legal Center’s Federal Reform Program Director Brendan Fischer after TYT asked him to review filings related to Winsome Leaders. Referring to Vukmir and Hawley, Fischer said, “It appears that the receipt of the transfer should have been disclosed.”
James received $6393 from Winsome Leaders II, also on Oct. 16, but also didn’t include it in his pre-general report. A 48-hour report on Oct. 30 from James lists donations from four separate Winsome Leaders donors, but doesn’t mention Winsome Leaders or disclose that the donations had been bundled. As a result, the FEC’s list of committees donating to James doesn’t include Winsome Leaders II.
An identical donation to Rosendale, also on Oct. 16, also isn’t included in his pre-general or 48-hour reports. Instead, as with James, the donors are listed as individuals. Winsome Leaders II doesn’t show up in Rosendale’s FEC summary.
Housley reported an $18,612 disbursement in an Oct. 26 48-hour report, but has never disclosed how much came from specific individual Winsome Leaders II donors.
“What’s really weird,” Fischer said, “is that the Winsome contributions weren’t reported on the candidates’ 48 hour reports. In the 20 days before an election, candidates must separately report the receipt of all contributions over $1000 within 48 hours.”
He said, “This is the kind of thing that would result in administrative FEC fines.”
The role of JFCs in political campaigns has shifted in recent years. Although a 2014 Supreme Court ruling preserved the $5400 cap for giving to individual candidates for primary and general campaigns, it eliminated the cap on how much any one donor could give overall. Now, wealthy donors can give to as many candidates as they want. That made JFCs more attractive as vessels for collecting and distributing funds from big donors.
It also means donors with deep pockets can effectively fund their preferred candidates above the individual limits--by getting other donors to give to them in return for making contributions to their candidates. For example, if a Hawaii donor wanted to give $54,000--ten times the maximum--to their candidate, they could form a JFC with nine other donors and the nine candidates favored by those donors. Each donor could then put in $54,000, and each candidate would get $54,000, without any donor violating the $5,400 cap. JFCs make this considerably easier.
Historically, JFCs have been formed by national parties, or similar candidates pursuing pools of like-minded donors. The FEC does not require JFCs to reveal when they are formed by donors, so the genesis of Winsome Leaders is unclear. At press time, Koch had not returned an email regarding the JFC’s origins and setup.
The first donors to Winsome Leaders, the Ensios, are long-time backers of McSally. And McSally was one of the seven original candidates first named in the initial Winsome Leaders filing. The Ensios, however, had maxed out on their donations to McSally the previous year, giving to her House campaign committee.
Then, in January and February of 2018, after McSally decided to run for the Senate, her House campaign transferred most of its funds to her Senate campaign. The following month, Winsome Leaders was created. Paavo and Ensio donated $16,200 each, which was split among the other six candidates. After the Mumfords began donating in July, money began flowing to McSally on Aug. 1.
Although Winsome Leaders has virtually no public profile compared to some national JFCs, data aggregated by the Center for Responsive Politics at OpenSecrets.org puts Winsome Leaders among the top committees giving to many of its recipient candidates. OpenSecrets ranked Winsome Leaders as one of the top ten committees donating to Blackburn, Cramer, Rosendale, and Hawley. All told, Winsome Leaders I and II report giving just over $300,000 to the ten candidates this year so far.
Emailed on Sunday for comment about Winsome Leaders, Koch had not responded as of press time.
You can reach TYT Managing Editor Jonathan Larsen on Twitter here.