It was the textbook earned-media campaign: Spend a little, generate a lot of free publicity. But Fight 4 America's campaign, despite engaging the services of professional political operatives, seems not to have cost a penny.
On May 22, the pro-military political group announced its launch at Tuna Harbor Park in San Diego, where the U.S.S. Midway looms as the ultimate backdrop and symbol of U.S. naval superiority. Fight 4 America's consultants set up a stage, podium, chairs and an array of American flags, placed posters on easels and trotted out assorted military figures, including Duncan L. Hunter, former chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. There it announced the production of three TV ads attacking the White House over impending "sequestration" cuts to the defense budget.
"When America is strong, our future is secure, but Barack Obama is taking the wind out of our military, cutting our defenses to levels lower than before World War II, making us vulnerable to attack or subservient to our enemies," a narrator says in one ad, over images of an American flag being lowered and replaced with a white flag of surrender. "If Barack Obama continues to disarm America, the only flag we'll be flying is this one."
The local news media—print, radio, television—jumped on the story about the new "super PAC," as it had been described in press releases. These types of political-action committees, which can spend unlimited amounts of money on electioneering, have taken center stage in the national drama surrounding so-called "dark money" and campaign-finance reform. Pundits speculated that Fight 4 America would serve as a front for massive campaign spending by the defense industry.
That hasn't happened. On July 13, the super PAC filed its required disclosure with the Federal Election Commission (FEC). The total raised: $450. It listed only one donor. Even more curious was how the group reported no expenses whatsoever for the kickoff, its website or advertisements, even though the commercials clearly stated, both in voiceover and text, that they were paid for by the Fight 4 America PAC.
While the coverage emphasized the super PAC, Fight 4 America simultaneously formed a 501(c)(4) nonprofit "social welfare" organization. These types of nonprofits have been dubbed "spooky PACs" by satirist Stephen Colbert because they're also able to spend money on political advertising (more often issue-based rather than candidate-based messaging) without disclosing their donors. Fight 4 America treasurer and board member Will Bennett says that virtually all of the fundraising efforts so far have focused on this nonprofit side.
Bennett, who's running for local office in Highlands County, Fla., would not disclose the organization's donors. However, when we read him a list of the top five historical donors to Hunter's Congressional campaigns (according to Opensecrets.org: Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics, General Atomics and Cubic Corp.), Bennett had a surprising response.
"I can tell you unequivocally that those names you just mentioned have not contributed to either the PAC or the C4," Bennett says. "With the C4, we're not required to release the names and some of our donors have requested to be anonymous. They're all individual donors; they're private people, and it's not corporations or anything like that. Then, on the PAC side— well, you saw the report."
The only listed donor on the PAC's disclosure was prolific GOP fundraiser Anne Hyde Dunsmore, whose Tarzana mailing address is also registered to the PAC. Dunsmore confirms she's fundraising for Fight 4 America but says she's not spoken to any defense corporations. Instead, she says, they're targeting "patriots"—that is, individuals for whom national security has become a top concern, particularly post-9/11. Having both a PAC and a nonprofit allows them to reach more donors.
"There's a restriction on messaging with C4s, and people who want to rip people apart don't want to give to that," Dunsmore says. "Then there are people who don't enjoy negative messaging and don't enjoy being in a fishbowl . Super PACs have really come under a lot of fire, and there's a lot of people who don't want to give to a super PAC."
Fight 4 America's chief concern is countering the impact of legislation passed in 2011 that mandates automatic, across-the-board discretionary-budget cuts if Congress cannot reduce the deficit by next January. This sequestration, as it's termed, would have significant impacts on the military budget. All involved say that the long-term goal is for Fight 4 America to serve as a permanent watchdog on military spending after the election has passed.
In the short term, the group has remained fairly dormant since the initial kickoff, says Dave Gilliard, Fight 4 America's political consultant. Last week, it began online advertising, and he expects Fight 4 America to start running ads in battleground states after Labor Day and single out particular Congressional seats. In the meantime, Fight 4 America representatives, such as Hunter, have been travelling around the country, including trips to New York, Texas and Florida.
Although the 30-second commercials were billed as "TV ads," Gilliard says they were merely examples of what the group could do, and not actually intended for air time. Bennett says the PAC hasn't purchased any air time.
"The [ads] were given to us for free," Bennett says. "There was no monetary value associated with them at this point."
For Bill Allison, editorial director for the Sunlight Foundation, a government-transparency watchdog, Fight 4 America's paperwork raises more questions than it answers. If the 501(c)(4) is paying for the PAC's expenses, or the PAC owes contractors, those need to be disclosed as in-kind contributions or debts. That could include a portion of the public-relations and political-consultant fees from the rollout and the cost of editing the commercials.
"It's strange that [the ads] say they're paid for by the super PAC and yet the super PAC isn't disclosing any spending on that," Allison says. "I think that's where they've got a problem at some point with the FEC."