American Future Fund, an Iowa-based 501(c)(4) group that is not required to disclose its donors, has launched a television ad in South Carolina attacking Sen. Ted Cruz as “weak” on defense.
Breitbart News has learned that Nick Ryan, the Iowa-based GOP political operative behind the ad, has strong ties to the ethanol industry—a big business in the Hawkeye State—and has recently launched a string of attack ads on Cruz and his political allies in Iowa and beyond.
The attacks are made via an interconnected maze of political organizations whose funding is sometimes obscure and whose compliance with Federal Election Commission reporting requirements is suspect.
“Nick Ryan has emerged as a political assassin,” Rep. Steve King, a strong supporter of Cruz, tells Breitbart News in an exclusive interview.
Politico reported on Wednesday that AFF has placed a $1.5 million buy for the spot that will run on television stations in South Carolina until the February 20 GOP primary.
Though Breitbart News cannot confirm the scale of the ad buy, sources tell Breitbart News that the ad ran on CBS television station WSPA in Greenville, South Carolina on Wednesday, and to date at least $750,000 in ad time has been purchased by AFF.
The Cruz campaign vigorously disputes the claims made in the AFF ad.
“The ad is factually incorrect from start to finish, and is nothing more than dirty politics by ethanol lobbyists who are bitter about Ted taking a stand against them and beating them in Iowa,” Cruz campaign spokesperson Alice Stewart tells Breitbart News.
The Cruz campaign provided Breitbart News with this point-by-point refutation of the ad’s claims:
FALSE: “Voted Against Defense Spending”
Cruz voted for the approps bill – the ACTUAL spending bill that funds the troops
2015: Cruz Yea
He voted for Senator Rubio’s budget amendment that would have raised the FY 2016 Defense budget from $620 to $697 billion.
Politifact has [also] looked at this.
FALSE: “Weaken our ability to track terrorists”
In a letter to Congress last May, James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence wrote that the USA Freedom Act “enhances other intelligence capabilities needed to protect our nation and its partners,” and “The intelligence community believes that the [USA Freedom Act] preserves the essential operational capabilities of the telephone metadata program.”
“The USA Freedom Act has not made us less safe at all, and in fact, I had a discussion last week with FBI Director James Comey,” he continued. “I asked him point blank, ‘Did this, in any way, impair our ability to follow up on the San Bernardino attack?’ And of course, the answer was no.”
Trey Gowdy and Tim Scott voted for USA Freedom, along with Joe Wilson and Jeff Duncan in SC.
The USA Freedom Act had overwhelming bipartisan support in the House and the Senate, such as Mike Lee and House Intel Chairman Mike McCaul, as well as the NRA.
Lee has called such claims “utterly false” and that Rubio is “dead wrong.”
FALSE: “Proposed Mass Legalization”
Cruz has never supported legalization and outside organizations have looked at this question several times:
Politifact, November 18, 2015.
Politifact, December 16, 2015.
Washington Post, December 18, 2015.
Fact Check, December 2015.
FALSE: “Praised the traitor Edward Snowden”
Cruz said: ““If it is the case that the federal government is seizing millions of personal records about law-abiding citizens, and if it is the case that there are minimal restrictions on accessing or reviewing those records, then I think Mr. Snowden has done a considerable public service by bringing it to light….If Mr. Snowden has violated the laws of this country, there are consequences to violating laws and that is something he has publicly stated he understands and I think the law needs to be enforced,” Cruz said.
“Today, we know that Snowden violated federal law, that his actions materially aided terrorists and enemies of the United States, and that he subsequently fled to China and Russia,” he continued. “Under the Constitution, giving aid to our enemies is treason.”
Nick Ryan founded AFF in 2007 and tells Breitbart News he is still affiliated with the organization. “Yes, I am the Founder of AFF and work with the organization. Shoot me any questions,” Ryan emailed Breitbart News on Wednesday.
Ryan, however, has failed to respond to a series of questions subsequently posed to him by Breitbart News about the anti-Ted Cruz ads.
AFF was a big player in the 2012 election, spending more than $24 million, according to FEC filings. Until the current spate of ads in South Carolina, however, it has been dormant. Its last FEC filing was made in March 2015. It has not yet filed any report with the FEC concerning its expenditures this month in South Carolina.
In 2011, Ryan founded the Red White and Blue Fund, a pro-Rick Santorum SuperPAC that raised $8 million, more than half of which came from two wealthy donors-Foster Friess and William Dore of Dore Energy.
In March 2015, Ryan founded Pursuing America’s Greatness (PAGPAC), a SuperPAC that supported Mike Huckabee and was primarily funded by a $3 million donation from Ronald Cameron, CEO of Little Rock, Arkansas based Mountainaire, one of the country’s largest poultry companies.
In January 2016, PAGPAC spent $2.1 million in Iowa both in support of Mike Huckabee and in opposition to Ted Cruz.
Huckabee withdrew from the Presidential race on February 2, the day after the Iowa caucuses in which he received less than 2 percent of the vote. Subsequently, the PAGPAC website has been taken down. For his part, Huckabee has become a bitter critic of Cruz, particular of the ethics of his hardball political tactics.
PAGPAC’s last television ad ran on January 29, and criticized Ted Cruz for failing to tithe:
Rep. King called the ad “a new low” in politics and put the blame for it squarely on Ryan’s shoulders. “It’s a maze that needs to be unraveled,” King said of the network of funds and consultants behind which Ryan operates.
“Ryan’s offices [in Des Moines] are next door to Craig Robinson, who writes for the Iowa Republican,” King adds.
“The connections between the Iowa Republican and the Concordia Group [which is owned by Ryan], and between Nick Ryan and Craig Robinson are pretty clear,” King says.
What connects the various groups operated or, in effect controlled, by Nick Ryan is support for continued federal subsidies for the ethanol industry. Notably, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul were the only presidential candidates competing in the Iowa GOP caucuses who opposed the continuation of ethanol subsidies.
In December, King and Cruz were attacked in $200,000 of radio and television ads paid for by the Political Project, another group controlled by Ryan with strong ties to pro-ethanol groups, as Steve Hayward of Powerline Blog reports:
Even worse is the renewable fuels mandate that distorts Iowa politics. The Washington Post’s Daily 202 e-mail report today shows corporatist Republicans at their very worst—mounting an effort to attack Ted Cruz because he won’t bow to the Iowa corn gods:
Recognizing [Cruz] poses an existential threat to the special benefits it receives from the government, the corn lobby is going all in to stop Cruz in Iowa.
Eric Branstad, the son of the popular Republican governor, is leading an industry-funded initiative called America’s Renewable Future. The group says it has hired 17 field staffers—more than some of the presidential campaigns have themselves—and already collected pledges from more than 50,000 people to make the issue a priority when they caucus. There are also radio ads, direct mail and robocalls.
GOP operative Nick Ryan is working for both the Branstad group and is currently on TV with a separate $200,000 advertising campaign, from the so-called “Iowa Progress Project,” which attacks Cruz on the same issue. The commercial, running in the Sioux City market, slams Steve King, one of the most conservative members in the House, for endorsing Cruz. King, who represents an agriculture-heavy district, has supported the RFS.
“Cruz is the most anti-ethanol, anti-renewable fuel, of all the candidates,” the governor, Terry Branstad, told Bloomberg earlier this month. “They’ve got a whole army of people that are working on this … If they are able to stop the Cruz momentum, that will show the real clout of the renewables.”
The Progress Project’s ad attacking Cruz and King in Iowa, put together by Ryan, can be seen here:
The ad was published to YouTube on December 22, 2015 by the Concordia Group, a consulting firm owned by Nick Ryan.
According to information provided when the ad was published to YouTube, “The new television ad [is] from the Progress Project. www.IowaProgressProject.com.”
The Progress Project , which is headquartered in Clive, Iowa, filed its one and only FEC report in 2012. Alison Kleis, currently treasurer of AFF, was listed as its Treasurer in the group’s last FEC filing, which was made in 2012. The 2012 report showed the group spent less than $1,500 that year, all of it in support of Rep. Adam Kinzinger.
Breitbart News has been unable to find any FEC filings submitted by the Progress Project for the anti-Steve King and anti-Ted Cruz ads that ran in Iowa in December 2015.
It is unclear if the organization is a PAC, a SuperPAC, or a 501 (c) (4).
Iowa Governor Terry Brandstad, a Republican, publicly called for the defeat of Cruz based on his opposition to ethanol subsidies. Brandstad’s son Eric works with America’s Renewable Future, an organization that supports the continuation of ethanol subsidies.
It is difficult to unravel the sources of funding Ryan and his associated groups—PAGPAC, AFF, the Progress Project, and AFF Political Action—have used to launch their attacks on Cruz. The murky nature of the funding behind these attacks is aided by existing law that shields the reporting of the names of 501 c 4 donors on FEC filings, as well as what can generously be described as sloppy and tardy compliance by these various groups with FEC reporting requirements.
For instance, $6.7 million was raised for AFF in 2013 by Two Rivers Capital, a fundraising firm whose principals are former George W. Bush staffer, Alison Kleis, and a former John McCain and George H.W. Bush staffer Rebecca Beach., according to the group’s 501 c 4 IRS 990 report, but AFF is apparently under no requirement to report the names of the donors who provided this $6.7 million.
Beach tells Breitbart News that she does not handle any of the firm’s political fundraising. Breitbart News contacted Kleis for comment, but did not receive a response.
990 Forms for 2014 and 2015 are not yet available for AFF.
AFF may be in violation of Federal Election Commission reporting requirements, as it has apparently not yet filed the required 24 or 48 hour independent expenditure report with the agency.
AFF also has an affiliated PAC, AFF Political Action (AFFPA) , which has seen some activity in 2015 and 2016 but is not listed as the organization responsible for the recent South Carolina attack ads.
Ryan and ethanol supporter Bruce Rastetter, as well Linus Catigani, a business associate of Huckabee consultant Chip Saltsman, have made modest donations to AFFPA . Rastetter donated $5,000 to AFFPA on December 16, 2015. Nick Ryan donated $30,000, $25,000 of which was made on December 31, 2015, and his wife Jill Ryan donated $7,000.
Catignani donated $10,000 in 2015.
During the second half of 2015, AFFPA made more than $149,000 in contributions to a group called AFF PA Tennessee.
Rastetter, an influential and wealthy Iowa entrepreneur, organized the March 2015 Iowa Ag Summit, which was designed to ascertain presidential candidates support for the continuation of ethanol subsidies. According to Politico, the summit was Nick Ryan’s idea:
If you ask political observers in Iowa about Rastetter, the term “kingmaker” inevitably comes up, but Rastetter and his allies dispute the idea.
“I think I try to make a difference with what I do and what candidates I support, but I would consider myself more [an influencer] than a kingmaker,” Rastetter said. “Clearly not everyone I have backed has won.”
But Rastetter’s moves over the past decade look like a “how to” guide for becoming a political power player, with far more influence than other wannabe Iowa kingmakers. He started by building agribusiness empires in some of Iowa’s key sectors— including pork and ethanol — then built close relationships with Iowa’s political elite, like Gov. Terry Branstad. He slowly upped his contributions to Republican causes beyond the state in 2008, giving tens of thousands to Karl Rove’s American Crossroads and the National Republican Senatorial Committee over the past few cycles. And now, Rastetter is getting up close and personal with the presidential hopefuls in full view of the media and other deep-pocketed donors…
But this cycle, he’s taking a different approach. This time, the candidates will all come to him.
Rastetter pulled a lot of levers to get much of the GOP field to come to his agriculture event. He got help from Branstad, whom he recruited to run for governor in 2010 and was his top donor. Branstad worked the phones with several of the GOP presidential candidates. The governor personally called Bush — who has not been to Iowa since declaring his intention to mull a 2016 run — and also Perry to convince them to attend.
Rastetter also got plenty of help from Nick Ryan, a major Iowa operative, and his wife Jill Ryan, Santorum’s former deputy campaign manager. The Ryans’ consulting and lobbying firm Concordia Group is organizing the agriculture summit.
Rastetter also has a connection to Nick Ryan’s 501(c)(4), American Future Fund, which pulled in more than $13 million from Koch-backed Freedom Partners in 2012. Rastetter told POLITICO that he donated to AFF in 2008 — to run positive ads in support of then Sen. Norm Coleman — but no longer gives to the group. He declined to discuss undisclosed giving to other political causes.
Election disclosures show Rastetter gave $25,000 to an AFF-affiliated super PAC in the 2014 cycle, but had not given to the PAC since donating $5,000 in 2009 — a drop in the bucket for groups that have spent tens of millions in recent years.
Aside from whatever financial ties exist, Ryan and Rastetter are close allies. Ryan said the agriculture summit was his idea. He floated the concept to Rastetter last fall when the two were at a Hawkeye football game: “We were tailgating and talking politics,” he recalls, pointing out that Iowa hosts lots of forums for presidential candidates, but there’s never been one focused on agriculture despite the sector representing a third of the state’s economy. “It seems like a huge opportunity,” he said. “I thought Bruce was perfectly situated to make it happen.”
Though Nick Ryan’s efforts failed to defeat Ted Cruz in Iowa, one thing is clear. He intends to do everything he possibly can to defeat Cruz in South Carolina and beyond.