News Politics

Akin Donations Prove Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Robin Marty

Despite saying they would have nothing to do with the Missouri Republican, the party still dropped big money on his failed senate campaign.

The Republican machine may have worked overtime to distance themselves politically from embattled Missouri senate candidate Rep. Todd Akin after he made remarks saying that he believed rape victims couldn’t physically get pregnant, and that even if they did, they should never be allowed abortions. The party acted quickly to condemn the comments, claiming it was a far right stance and not the view of the majority of the party, despite affirming the same “no exceptions” plank in the GOP platform just weeks later.

But just because they were publicly drawing a line between themselves and Akin doesn’t mean that line existed when it came to financial support. According to the Associated Press:

[A] finance report filed by the Missouri Republican State Committee shows it received $760,000 from the [National Republican Senatorial Committee] in two payments made Nov. 1 and Nov. 2. At about the same time, the state Republican committee spent a nearly identical amount of money for TV ads supporting Akin.

So, national Republicans told the truth—they wouldn’t spend money on Akin. They would just spend money on the state committee so it could spend money on Akin.

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News Politics

Anti-Choice Group Faces Fundraising Gap in ‘Topsy-Turvy Year’

Amy Littlefield

“I will tell you that this has been the toughest year we have faced since I’ve been executive director of National Right to Life—and I came here in 1984—for our political fundraising,” David O’Steen announced at the annual National Right to Life Convention Friday.

Less than two weeks after the Supreme Court dealt the anti-choice movement its most devastating blow in decades, one of the nation’s leading anti-choice groups gathered at an airport hotel in Virginia for its annual convention.

The 46th annual National Right to Life Convention arrived at what organizers acknowledged was an unusual political moment. Beyond the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down abortion restrictions in Texas, the anti-choice movement faces the likely nomination later this month of a Republican presidential candidate who once described himself as “very pro-choice.”

The mood felt lackluster as the three-day conference opened Thursday, amid signs many had opted not to trek to the hotel by Dulles airport, about an hour from Washington, D.C. With workshops ranging from “Pro-Life Concerns About Girl Scouts,” to “The Pro-Life Movement and Congress: 2016,” the conference seeks to educate anti-choice activists from across the United States.

While convention director Jacki Ragan said attendance numbers were about on par with past years, with between 1,000 and 1,100 registrants, the sessions were packed with empty chairs, and the highest number of audience members Rewire counted in any of the general sessions was 150. In the workshops, attendance ranged from as many as 50 people (at one especially popular panel featuring former abortion clinic workers) to as few as four.

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The attendance wasn’t the only sign of flagging enthusiasm.

“I will tell you that this has been the toughest year we have faced since I’ve been executive director of National Right to Life—and I came here in 1984—for our political fundraising,” National Right to Life Executive Director David O’Steen announced at Friday morning’s general session. “It’s been a topsy-turvy year. It’s been, for many people, a discouraging year. Many, many, many pro-life dollars, or dollars from people that would normally donate, were spent amongst 17 candidates in the Republican primary.”

O’Steen said the organization needed “$4 million that we do not have right now.”

When asked by Rewire to clarify details of the $4 million shortfall, O’Steen said, “You’re thinking this through more deeply than I have so far. Basically, the Right to Life movement, we will take the resources we have and we will use them as effectively as we can.”  

O’Steen said the organization wasn’t alone in its fundraising woes. “I think across many places, a lot of money was spent in these primaries,” he said. (An analysis by the Center for Public Integrity found presidential candidates and affiliated groups spent $1 billion on the presidential race through March alone, nearly two-thirds of it on the Republican primary. Anti-choice favorite Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (R) spent more than than $70 million, higher than any other Republican.)

The National Right to Life Board of Directors voted to back Cruz in the Republican presidential primaries back in April. It has not yet formally backed Donald Trump.

“I really don’t know if there will be a decision, what it will be,” National Right to Life Committee President Carol Tobias told Rewire. “Everything has [been] kind of crazy and up in the air this year, so we’re going to wait and kind of see everything that happens. It’s been a very unusual year all the way around.”

Some in the anti-choice movement have openly opposed Trump, including conservative pundit Guy Benson, who declared at Thursday’s opening session, “I’m not sure if we have someone who is actually pro-life in the presidential race.”

But many at the convention seemed ready to rally behind Trump, albeit half-heartedly. “Let’s put it this way: Some people don’t know whether they should even vote,” said the Rev. Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life. “Of course you should … the situation we have now is just a heightened version of what we face in any electoral choice, namely, you’re choosing between two people who, you know, you can have problems with both of them.”

Another issue on the minds of many attendees that received little mention throughout the conference was the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, which struck down provisions in Texas requiring abortion providers to have hospital admitting privileges and mandating clinics meet the standards of hospital-style surgery centers. The case did not challenge Texas’ 20-week abortion ban.

“We aren’t going to have any changes in our strategy,” Tobias told Rewire, outlining plans to continue to focus on provisions including 20-week bans and attempts to outlaw the common second-trimester abortion procedure of dilation and evacuation, which anti-choice advocates call “dismemberment” abortion.

But some conference attendees expressed skepticism about the lack of any new legal strategy.

“I haven’t heard any discussion at all yet about, in light of the recent Supreme Court decision, how that weighs in strategically, not just with this legislation, but all pro-life legislation in the future,” Sam Lee, of Campaign Life Missouri, said during a panel discussion on so-called dismemberment abortion. “There has not been that discussion this weekend and that’s probably one of my disappointments right now.”

The Supreme Court decision has highlighted differing strategies within the anti-choice community. Americans United for Life has pushed copycat provisions like the two that were struck down in Texas to require admitting privileges and surgery center standards under the guise of promoting women’s health. National Right to Life, on the other hand, says it’s focused on boilerplate legislation that “makes the baby visible,” in an attempt to appeal to Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who cast a key vote to uphold a “partial-birth abortion” ban in 2007.

When asked by Rewire about the effect of the Texas Supreme Court case, James Bopp, general counsel for the National Right to Life Committee, appeared to criticize the AUL strategy in Texas. (Bopp is, among other things, the legal brain behind Citizens United, the Supreme Court decision that opened the floodgates for corporate spending on elections.)

“This case was somewhat extreme, in the sense that there were 40 abortion clinics—now this is just corresponding in time, not causation, this is a correlation—there were 40 abortion clinics and after the law, there were six,” Bopp said. “That’s kind of extreme.”

Speaking to an audience of about ten people during a workshop on campaign finance, Bopp said groups seeking to restrict abortion would need to work harder to solidify their evidence. “People will realize … as you pass things that you’re going to have to prove this in court so you better get your evidence together and get ready to present it, rather than just assuming that you don’t have to do that which was the assumption in Texas,” he said. “They changed that standard. It changed. So you’ve gotta prove it. Well, we’ll get ready to prove it.”

Analysis Politics

The DeVos Family: Promoting Conservative Religious Values Through Political Donations

Ally Boguhn

The DeVos family has thrown millions of dollars toward financing Senate races across the country involving vulnerable Republicans who support their issues; funding crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) that lie to patients about pregnancy, abortion, and other health concerns; and lining up support for so-called religious liberties measures.

When you think about “money in politics,” the Kochs, the Mercers, the Coorses, or the Wilksesall of whom have made names for themselves funding conservative causes across the country—may come to mind.

You may be less likely to think about the DeVos family: religious conservatives in Michigan who for decades have helped funnel money into influential political battles, including local races, ballot measures, presidential elections, and key congressional contests in other states.

The DeVos family has thrown millions of dollars behind the causes and politicians they support. That means financing Senate races across the country involving vulnerable Republicans who support their issues; funding crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) that lie to patients about abortion and other health concerns; fighting against marriage equality; and lining up support for so-called religious liberties measures.

In a January report highlighting donors “you’ve never heard of” who stand to make the biggest impact on this year’s upcoming election, the Hill’s Jonathan Swan and Harper Neidig featured the DeVoses’ almost unparalleled influence in conservative politics.

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“Over the course of 2015, no family in conservative politics donated more hard dollars to political campaigns than the DeVoses,” reported Swan and Neidig. Richard DeVos, the family’s billionaire patriarch, built his fortune as a co-founder of direct-selling franchise Amway; he is also the owner of the NBA’s Orlando Magic team. “An analysis by The Hill shows that members of the DeVos family donated $964,000 in hard dollars to Senate and House campaigns and to Republican Party committees at both the state and national level. This spending easily surpasses the $97,000 in hard dollars from the Koch family and $72,000 from the Coorses—two other major conservative donor families.”

The DeVoses’ commitment to the Republican Party runs deep. Among their numerous political ties, Richard DeVos acted as the finance chair of the Republican National Committee (RNC) in the 1980s; Betsy DeVos, who is married to Richard’s son Dick DeVos, was the chair of the Michigan Republican Party and finance chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee; and her husband Dick took on a self-funded failed gubernatorial bid in Michigan in 2006 that cost the family more than $35 million.

In a phone interview with Rewire, Denise Roth Barber, managing director of the nonpartisan National Institute on Money in State Politics, explained that for families like the DeVoses, donations are often made to foster eventual relationships with politicians. “In general we all understand that contributions are made as an investment and that they’re hoping at the very least to have access to the candidates once they win so that they can discuss policies,” Roth Barber explained.

A search of the National Institute on Money in State Politics’ database, FollowTheMoney.org, reveals that the DeVos family has given $52.5 million to candidates and committees across the country since 2000, according to state data. However, Roth Barber noted that the family’s influence could extend beyond these reported direct donations. “There are so many other ways to influence and to … spend money politically besides direct donations to ballot measures, campaigns, and party committees …. So when we are looking at this we know that this is just one portion of their money. It’s not everything.”

In her book Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, Jane Mayer explained that one of the ways the DeVoses have pushed their political influence beyond direct donations has been by putting hundreds of millions of dollars behind building a conservative movement.

“Starting in 1970, they began to direct at least $200 million into virtually every branch of the New Right’s infrastructure, from think tanks like the Heritage Foundation to academic organizations such as the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, which funded conservative publications on college campuses,” Mayer wrote.  

In a 1997 guest column for Capitol Hill publication Roll Call denouncing campaign finance regulations, Betsy DeVos admitted outright that she and her family used their money in order to buy influence.

“I know a little something about soft money, as my family is the largest single contributor of soft money to the national Republican Party,” wrote DeVos, according to Mayer. “I have decided, however, to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point. They are right. We do expect some things in return. We expect to foster a conservative governing philosophy consisting of limited government and respect for traditional American values.”

Much of the DeVos family’s donations have gone toward helping to fund the politicians and the conservative organizations behind anti-choice and other conservative measures in their home state of Michigan. “With donations to state legislators and Gov. Rick Snyder, the DeVos family—via the Michigan Family Forum and Michigan Right to Life, which they help to fund—were able to pass Michigan’s ‘rape insurance’ law, requiring women to buy a separate insurance rider for abortion to be covered, even in cases of rape and incest,” explained NARAL Pro-Choice America in a 2015 memo, referring to the 2013 Abortion Insurance Opt-Out Act.

The family did indeed play a role in helping to elect Michigan Gov. Snyder, who has signed additional pieces of anti-abortion legislation, such as a 2012 anti-choice “super-bill” banning telemedicine abortion in the state and enacting what advocates called “coercion screenings” on those seeking the procedure. Snyder, more recently, has come under fire for mishandling the water crisis in Flint. Snyder was re-elected after “significant national involvement in the Michigan gubernatorial campaign” from the Republican Governors Association (RGA), according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, which also found that the DeVos family was among Michigan’s top donors to the RGA during the 2014 election cycle. The DeVoses gave another $122,430 directly to Rick Snyder for Governor.

Their donations have also helped other local anti-choice politicians get elected, including state Sen. Tom Casperson (R-Escanaba), who has sponsored measures such as “Choose Life” license plate legislation to help fund CPCs and who introduced a ban on a common abortion procedure this January, and state Sen. Darwin Booher (R-Evart), who has co-sponsored laws targeting Michigan abortion providers.

Although in recent years they seem to have largely flown under the radar outside of their home state, the DeVoses’ penchant for funding ultra-conservative causes and politicians hasn’t gone completely unnoticed. In 2012, members of the LGBTQ community called for a boycott of the family’s Amway company and its affiliates after news broke that the DeVoses had donated $500,000 to anti-marriage equality organization National Organization for Marriage (NOM).

An analysis released in February 2015 by Common Cause, a nonpartisan watchdog organization, named the DeVos family as one of the “major funders of the Religious Right,” finding that since 1998, the family gave more than $6.7 million to Focus on the Family (FoF)​—the same group that spent nearly $3 million in 2010 to fund an anti-abortion ad featuring football player and known conservative poster boy Tim Tebow during the Super Bowl​—through two of their family foundations. FoF spends millions each year to promote its anti-choice and anti-LGBTQ extremism, including promoting the passage of religious freedom restoration acts (RFRA).

NARAL similarly featured the DeVoses in its memo outlining the families that fund the “March for Life” and the larger anti-choice movement. NARAL’s research found that the DeVoses have spent millions of dollars funding right-wing organizations through direct donations as well as donations to “pass-through organizations” that help funnel money to conservative groups, think tanks, and other organizations, largely without the oversight of the Federal Election Commission (FEC)​. The DeVoses’ family charity gave $6.5 million total in 2009, 2010, and 2012 to DonorsTrust, one of these “pass-through” organizations that in turn has donated to FoF and other conservative groups such as Americans United for Life, which provides model anti-choice legislation for states looking to restrict access to reproductive health care.

In 2011, the DeVos family gave $3 million to the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, the nonprofit arm of the Koch-backed organization, through an unrestricted grant. As Adele Stan reported for Rewire, the Americans for Prosperity advocacy arm spent millions of dollars in the 2012 elections—and nearly all of that money was spent supporting anti-choice candidates.

Further analysis of the family’s giving shows that their opposition to abortion also prompted the DeVoses to give millions to conservative causes such as CPCs and other anti-choice organizations through their family foundations.

Between 1998 and 2013, two of the family’s charitable organizations—the Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation and the DeVos Urban Leadership Initiative (formerly the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation)—have given more than $1.1 million in unrestricted grants to a single CPC in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the Pregnancy Resource Center, which bills itself as a “life-affirming” clinic.

In these same years, the organizations donated heavily to the Right to Life Michigan Educational Fund, giving the group over $1.6 million in unrestricted grants. Another $15,000 was given to Baptists for Life.

The family is also a big supporter of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank home to the Richard and Helen DeVos Center on Religion and Civil Society, established in 2004 after a $1.8 million grant from the DeVoses. The center was created “as a way to improve public discourse on these issues and to integrate serious reflection on the role of family, religion, and civil society across policy areas,” according to Heritage’s website. Its analysts have taken hardline stances advocating for Planned Parenthood to be defunded, opposing marriage equality, and arguing in favor of RFRA-related protections.

Perhaps just as significant have been the family’s donations during elections, particularly in recent years. During the 2012 election alone, 15 members of the family donated to primarily conservative political candidates, totaling over $1.4 million in funding. The family’s Amway company and its parent company, Alticor Inc., contributed another $1.07 million in that election cycle to candidates, PACs, committees, and outside spending groups.

The next year, after their home state of Michigan instated a new law doubling campaign contribution limits, nine members of the family gave a total of $700,000 to the state house and senate Republican caucuses in just two days. Between January 1, 2013 and December 31, 2014, the DeVos family gave $2.3 million to the Michigan Republican Party.

Analysis of the DeVoses’ spending in the 2016 campaign cycle conducted by Rewire using Center for Responsive Politics’ OpenSecrets.org database found that many members of the family have already donated the maximum amounts allowable by law under the FEC’s contribution limits, the majority going to vulnerable candidates across the country whose Senate seats are key to maintaining a Republican majority.

The FEC allows individual contribution limits of no more than $2,700 per person per election, and at least eight members of the DeVos family contributed the maximum allowable amount to Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), Sen. Richard Burr (R-SC), Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA), and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL).

For many of these vulnerable incumbents, their anti-choice positions are a key point in their conservative platforms. In December 2015 the Associated Press predicted that abortion would play a major role in Senate races in many of the same states the DeVoses are funding conservative candidates, including New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Ohio.

This comes as no surprise, given that several of these same Republicans have a long history of pushing their extreme anti-choice views. Sen. Portman, who is running for re-election in Ohio, for example, touts on his campaign website his 100 percent rating from anti-choice group National Right to Life, his 77-0 voting record in favor of anti-choice measures, and his record co-sponsoring medically unsubstantiated fetal pain legislation in the Senate.

New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, meanwhile, has championed so-called religious liberties at the expense of reproductive health care, seemingly a pet issue of the DeVoses given that Amway/Alticor has lobbied for related measures. Ayotte lauded the Supreme Court’s decision in Hobby Lobby allowing some employers to deny their staff insurance coverage for contraceptives with which they disagree on religious grounds, writing in a statement that “Americans shouldn’t be forced to comply with government mandates that violate core principles of their faith.” Ayotte also co-sponsored the Blunt Amendment, which would have limited the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate by allowing employers and insurers to deny contraceptive coverage and other care they disagreed with for “moral reasons.” 

At least nine members of the family have also given $10,000 (the largest an individual is allowed to donate to to a state or local party committee) directly to the Republican Party of Michigan this election cycle. The RNC is another major recipient of DeVos dollars, receiving over $1.1 million from the family in 2015 and maxing out contributions for many of the family members. The Republican Senatorial Committee received maximum donations of $33,400 from nine members of the family, totaling over $300,000.

Thus far, the family seems to be hedging its bets on which presidential candidate to back, and donations of various sizes have been made toward several Republicans who have already dropped out of the race, including Carly Fiorina, Marco Rubio, and Jeb Bush. John Kasich has also received a handful of direct donations.

With hundreds of thousands of dollars already directly invested in conservative politicians nationwide, the DeVoses’ financial contributions in 2016 mean the family could be buying up access to elected officials across the country. Given their stringent devotion to the causes pushed by the religious right, that influence could be a cause for concern.