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Pro-Kirk super PAC shows how mega-donors avoid spending caps

WASHINGTON – A super PAC created specifically to bolster Sen. Mark Kirk’s GOP re-election bid is a stark example of how mega-donors legally skirt federal caps on individual contributions.

Fueled by jumbo donations, the Independent Voice for Illinois super PAC has spent more than $1 million in negative television ads attacking Kirk’s Democratic opponent, Rep. Tammy Duckworth.

Independent Expenditure committees, also known as super PACs, are allowed to legally advocate for the election or defeat of a candidate as long as there is no cooperation or consultation with the campaign itself.

Individuals giving to House, Senate and presidential campaigns are capped at $5,400 per cycle — $2,700 for the primary, $2,700 for the general election contest. Super PACs can take in unlimited amounts of cash.

To get around these donation caps, Kirk allies, planning ahead, founded the Independent Voice for Illinois, filing a statement of organization with the Federal Election Commission on Feb. 12, 2015.

As of June 30, the latest FEC report, the largest donors to Independent Voice are two of the biggest Republican donors in the nation.

Chicago’s Ken Griffin, the founder of the Citadel financial services firm, pumped $350,000 into Independent Voice.

Paul Singer, the New York hedge fund mogul who in the last week made the Washington Post’s list of the 10 mega-donors of the 2016 cycle, sent $250,000 to the fund.

The GOP wing of the Cubs-owning Ricketts family sent $50,000 through one of their super PACs, too.

The very name of the pro-Kirk super PAC — Independent Voice — reflects Kirk’s central campaign theme. It’s a phrase Kirk uses all the time to describe himself.

There are close connections and long-standing relationships between key Independent Voice players and the Kirk campaign.

A Chicago Sun-Times analysis of the super PAC reveals how it has been able to legally echo and reinforce the official Kirk campaign with money that could not go to the campaign itself:

  • The top consultant for Independent Voice is Eric Elk, a former Kirk Senate chief of staff.
  • The Independent Voice treasurer is Jo Merlau, who with her husband, Ken, are longtime Kirk donors and fundraisers. Merlau hosted a fundraiser for Kirk’s campaign at her Winnetka home last year and co-hosted two others this summer. Kirk attended all three.
  • Independent Voice, Kirk for Senate and Kirk’s Lincoln PAC all employ the same fundraiser, the Endicott Group in Washington.
  • Independent Voice has produced five anti-Duckworth television ads, buying about $1 million in air time in the Rockford, Champaign-Springfield and Peoria markets, a source tells the Sun-Times.

The five television spots very closely track the Kirk campaign main hits on Duckworth: Syrian refugees; her appointment by the now-imprisoned former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich to lead the Illinois Veterans Affairs Department; a VA whistleblower lawsuit, and her support for the Iran nuclear deal.

In political shorthand, this close alignment of super PAC advertising with the campaign is sometimes nicknamed “coordination in plain sight.”

Other early $100,000 Independent Voice donors are Warren Stephens, chairman of the Little Rock, Arkansas-headquartered Stephans, Inc., and two business executives in Boston: Jonathon Jacobson, founder of Highfields Capital Management, and Seth Klarman, CEO and President of the Baupost Group.

Labor unions and corporations are banned from giving to federal campaigns, but super PACs can take that money.

Murray Energy Corp. in Ohio donated $100,000 in 2015 to Independent Voice, MacLean-Fogg in Mundelein gave $25,000 and CFS of Waukegan donated $15,000. MacLean-Fogg president Barry MacLean and CFS president Jeff Brincat are longtime Kirk donors.

FEC records show that on May 25, Independent Voice paid $41,800 to Basswood Research in Bethesda, Md. for a poll. The survey gave Kirk, one of the most endangered senators on the November ballot, a slight edge on Duckworth. In July, that poll was leaked and soon the upbeat story was picked up by a variety of Illinois outlets.

“The voters of Illinois deserve a level playing field,” said Kirk campaign manager Kevin Artl. “Despite the overwhelming money of big labor and an array of special interests and dark money groups attempting to defeat Sen. Kirk, we are confident his record of thoughtful, independent leadership will be what voters remember most before they cast their votes.”

As Viveca Novak, the spokesman for the money-in-politics watchdog Center for Responsive Politics, said: “Super PACs allow the wealthiest donors to give unlimited sums to support their candidate. The $2,700 limit on donations directly to candidates has become essentially irrelevant for them.”

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