Staff Columnist

Your friendly neighborhood super PAC is bankrolling ads in Iowa's 1st District

Rep. Abby Finkenauer (D-IA) poses with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) for a ceremonial swearing-in picture on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., January 3, 2019.      REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
Rep. Abby Finkenauer (D-IA) poses with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) for a ceremonial swearing-in picture on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., January 3, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

So there’s a multimillion dollar national conservative Super PAC headquartered in Marion. It’s in an ordinary house on the north end of town.

Not the usual setting for big money politicking? My side of Marion is full of surprises.

It’s Americas PAC, which spent roughly $9 million weighing in on congressional races and other campaigns across the country during the 2016 and 2018 election cycles, according to numbers compiled by OpenSecrets.org. The bucks mostly bankrolled ads attacking Democrats and promoting Republicans.

The PAC has spent nearly $1.2 million in the 2020 cycle, including roughly $375,000 on new ads targeting 1St District U.S. Rep. Abby Finkenauer and 3rd District U.S. Rep. Cindy Axne, both freshmen Democrats, according to FEC filings. The 12-week radio ad buy started this week on stations in the Cedar Rapids and Des Moines media markets.

The head of Americas PAC is Tom Donelson, 65, an unassuming guy in a lived-in sports coat, necktie and bluejeans. I might have waited behind him in the line at Hy-Vee a few times. Little did I know.

An east coast native, Donelson got into politics decades ago, once managing a long shot congressional campaign in 1988 in the Kansas City area. That’s where he met Richard Nadler, a longtime Kansas City conservative writer, publisher and activist who founded Americas PAC. After Nadler died in 2009, Donelson took the helm. He moved to Marion in 1995.

“We’re one of those unique organizations where we actually spend money on campaigns,” Donelson told me in an interview, explaining the PAC’s humble digs. “Eighty-five to 90 cents of every dollar we get goes to what you hear on the radio. One of the ways we keep the cost low is we don’t have offices.”

In 2019, those dollars have come almost exclusively from one guy, Richard Uihlein, a Republican megadonor from Wake Forest, Illinois, and CEO of the shipping supplies company Uline. During the 2018 cycle, Uihlein gave $38 million to conservative candidates and groups nationwide, including more than $5 million to Americas PAC.

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Among the many candidates who received Uihlein’s help was Alabama U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore, who was defeated in a high-profile race amid charges he molested underage girls. Uihlein gave Moore $100,000.

In February of this year, Uihlein donated $500,000 to Americas PAC, constituting all but $1,063 the PAC has raised in 2019, according to OpenSecrets.org and FEC filings.

I asked Donelson about Uihlein. “I don’t tend to discuss my donors,” he said, insisting no donor dictates the PAC’s message.

But Uihlein’s bucks are buying airtime in Cedar Rapids for a radio ad that smacks Democrats for focusing on impeachment and “social media stunts” instead of rising health care premiums.

“I used to give them credit for at least caring, but All Democrats care about is likes and hashtags. It’s time to focus on what really matters,” the ad’s female narrator says.

The current ad doesn’t mention Finkenauer, although the generational punches at “social media” “Instagram” and “hashtags” are clearly meant to singe Finkenauer, the second-youngest member ever elected. Donelson said subsequent ads will target the incumbent by name.

Americas PAC cannot, legally, coordinate with Finkenauer’s likely Republican opponent, state Rep. Ashley Hinson of Marion. “I don’t coordinate. I don’t collaborate with any campaign,” Donelson said.

But the PAC’s ads fit well with Hinson’s recent messaging.

“The Democrats in Congress continue to focus on endless investigations instead of passing USMCA, improving our health care system, and securing our border. When I go to Washington, I’ll focus on solving problems that really matter to Iowa families. We need new leadership that puts people before politics,” Hinson wrote in a Facebook post after Democrats voted to open an impeachment inquiry.

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Will this line of attack work? Finkenauer has hardly been a major force or player in the impeachment saga. She’s mostly kept her head down this year doing committee work on issues important to her district, such as a bill she sponsored on federal funding for small business that passed the House. I’m unaware of any social media stunts she’s pulled.

“It is important that Congress, and the American people, have more opportunities to learn the facts and understand the full scope of the president’s actions,” Finkenauer said in a statement as the House voted to pursue an impeachment inquiry. ”I continue to support the investigations of the congressional committees looking into this matter, and will always stand by and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

Hinson apparently thinks it’s unnecessary to investigate a president who blatantly abused the powers of his office for personal political gain, in violation of the Constitution, while jeopardizing an ally and undermining American foreign policy. She once led a legislative charge to make it unlawful for state elected officials to use taxpayer dollars to pay for promotional materials. If only the president had been caught publicly funding a state fair booth. Hinson would be all over that.

Finkenauer recently held a fish fry fundraiser with eight presidential candidates focused on infrastructure and jobs. Her mom baked 1,000 cupcakes for the event.

Hinson recently held a fundraiser featuring South Carolina GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham. He’s baked up dozens of implausible defenses for an indefensible president.

So there are contrasts to consider, to be sure.

Sadly, Americas PAC won’t be the last outside group funded by very rich folks who will saturate our congressional district with their views on how we ought to vote. Democratic-leaning groups will certainly enter the fray as well. Millions of dollars will be spent. And all of this will do a fine job drowning out the voices of people who live here and can’t afford to buy 12 weeks of radio ads.

Donelson disagrees with my view on outsiders drowning us out.

“I disagree with your assumption on that because, No. 1, Abby Finkenauer, Joni Ernst, they’re United States representatives and United States senators. What they do affects people beyond their borders,” Donelson said, arguing that his PAC simply provides another voice in the debate.

“The ads we do, we can back up,” Donelson said.

But so far, it’s the voice of one really reach guy in Illinois who sells packing peanuts by the cubic foot and shipping boxes in bulk. Return to sender, I say.

(319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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