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Who's Behind the Mysterious PAC Dropping Huge Sums to Reelect Susan Collins?
Written by <a href="index.php?option=com_comprofiler&task=userProfile&user=45097"><span class="small">Lachlan Markay, The Daily Beast</span></a>   
Thursday, 19 December 2019 13:52

Markay writes: "One of the most vulnerable Republican 2020 Senate incumbents is getting major air cover from a new super PAC designed to sound like a local group. But all signs point toward the involvement of the country's biggest business lobby 500 miles away in Washington, D.C."

Sen. Susan Collins. (photo: Andrew Harrer/Getty)
Sen. Susan Collins. (photo: Andrew Harrer/Getty)

Who's Behind the Mysterious PAC Dropping Huge Sums to Reelect Susan Collins?

By Lachlan Markay, The Daily Beast

19 December 19


ne of the most vulnerable Republican 2020 Senate incumbents is getting major air cover from a new super PAC designed to sound like a local group. But all signs point toward the involvement of the country’s biggest business lobby 500 miles away in Washington, D.C. 

The group, a super PAC called 1820 PAC, has dropped about $700,000 on ads this year pressing for the re-election of Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), who is facing a tough fight in a race sure to be one of the most expensive of the cycle. The name of the PAC is a reference to the year of Maine’s founding, but 1820’s mailing address is in Washington. And a PAY DIRT analysis of public records shows the fingerprints of one of DC’s heaviest political hitters: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The Chamber didn’t respond to our comment request. But when asked about its relationship with 1820, Scott Reed, a senior political strategist for the business group, told us in an email, “The Chamber’s voter-education program is in close contact with other outside groups that share the same goals.” 

That statement undersells the connections. Reed himself is a donor to 1820. Both groups are using the same ad buyer for their pro-Collins television spots. Those ads all use footage from the same clip of B-roll uploaded to the Collins campaign’s YouTube page, a common tactic to circumvent super PAC coordination rules. 1820 has paid for digital ads that consist solely of the Chamber’s pro-Collins videos. And last week, 1820 started buying ads that link to the Chamber’s pro-Collins website.

There’s nothing legally problematic with any of that; independent political spenders are free to coordinate their strategies, as long as they’re not coordinating with candidates or parties themselves. But the many connections between pro-Collins efforts by 1820 and the Chamber shed new light on the interests behind one of the cycle’s top super PACs so far, and show how groups in Washington can attempt to inject money into key political contests in ways that mask their involvement with a figleaf of localized branding.

1820 PAC was formed in March, and within a few months had amassed a sizable war chest. Its top donor by far is Stephen Schwarzman, the chairman and CEO of private-equity giant Blackstone, who chipped in half a million dollars in May. The group has also received $100,000 donations from investors Robert Burt and Howard Leach; $25,000 apiece from a company run by former AIG chief Hank Greenberg, and a division of film studio Lionsgate, and an investment fund founded by Dallas developer Trammell Crow; and $1,000 from Reed.

The group won’t disclose its finances for the second half of 2019 until January. But in the first six months of the year, none of its donors hailed from Maine.

People who view the group’s ads or visit its website might come away with an impression of a more local organization. The website’s background features a picturesque photo of a lighthouse on the Portland coast. It hails Collins as a leader whose “seniority and power in the Senate inures to Maine’s benefit.” And when it cut its first pro-Collins ad of the cycle, the PAC called it “Maine Tradition.”

Whether any Mainers actually work for the group isn’t clear either, largely because the identities of the individuals or organizations behind it aren’t apparent in any public records it’s filed to date. In Federal Election Commission filings, the group lists its mailing address as a post-office box in Washington. The only listed officer is Thomas Datwyler, a campaign treasurer-for-hire who’s handled administrative work for scores of candidates and political committees.

When 1820 submitted Federal Communications Commission paperwork with an ABC affiliate in September to air its Maine Tradition ad, an employee at the station tried and failed to turn up any additional details about the group. In a section of the form listing the PAC’s employees and representatives, the WMTW employee wrote in Datwyler and added, “Can’t find other names.”

As those FCC filings continued rolling into broadcast stations around Maine, another name began popping up in association with 1820. Betsy Vonderheid isn’t an employee of the PAC; she works for its ad buyer, SRCP Media, and has affixed her signature to all of 1820’s FCC advertising filings since it started buying airtime in September.

SRCP has one other notable client in Maine: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and Vonderheid appears to handle that account as well. She’s signed the equivalent FCC paperwork for a number of the Chamber’s pro-Collins ads in the state over the last few months. And Vonderheid has purchased Chamber ads on all nine of the same stations where she’s also taken out ads for 1820.

The Chamber’s ads are more specific in their contents, with a focus on Collins’ support for apprenticeship and job-training programs in Maine. The 1820 adsfocus on Collins’ bipartisan credentials—”that means real results for Maine,” one spot says—and laud her for her work on drug prices and pharmaceutical research, and note she’s brought home money for Maine’s defense contractors.

If the specific issues in Chamber and 1820 ads diverge, though, they do share one key characteristic: All of the pro-Collins ads released by both groups incorporate “B-roll” footage from the same six-minute video uploaded to the Collins campaign’s YouTube page.

It’s a common tactic for campaigns that want to assist supportive super PACs in ways that don’t run afoul of laws barring coordination with such groups. The campaign uploads media on its website or somewhere else online where the super PAC knows where to find it. The latter then downloads that media and uses it in ad without having to communicate with the candidate or campaign.

The tactic is generally considered aboveboard legally. But the Maine Democratic Party filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission in October alleging 1820’s use of the B-roll footage violated super PAC coordination rules. “Over 70 percent of [the video content in one 1820 ad] is footage created by the Collins’ campaign,” the party wrote, meaning, “1820 PAC essentially paid to air Collins’ own advertisement.”

Whether or not the practice was illegal, the overlap in both the creative and strategic aspects of the ads from 1820 and the Chamber underscore the synergy between the two groups.

The overlap between the two groups is even clearer in their digital buys. In early November, 1820 purchased a few Google ads featuring pro-Collins videos. But they weren’t 1820’s videos; the group was paying to place two of the Chamber’s pro-Collins ads hyping her support for apprenticeship programs.

Days earlier, 1820 had started buying Google ads that touted Collins’ bipartisanship and linked to a stand-alone website,, that says it’s “paid for by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce” and “supported by the Maine State Chamber of Commerce.” Through Dec. 15, 1820 would buy five more Google ads linking to that website.

It also took out a handful of Facebook ads this month targeting female users in Maine. “Susan Collins stands up to greedy special interests and extremists in both parties,” the promoted posts declared. “When she fights, Maine and America win.”

The ads featured two versions of 1820’s more recent pro-Collins video, the original 30-second spot and a shortened 15-second version. Below each video was a link to the Chamber’s website.

It’s not altogether surprising that the Chamber would want to see Collins re-elected. She enjoys only a modest 78 percent lifetime rating on the organization’s legislative scorecard, but her race will be crucial to efforts to maintain a Republican Senate majority. And while the Chamber has broken with Trump-era GOP orthodoxy on some key issues, Democrats’ leftward shift over the last few years poses a far greater threat to the Chamber’s legislative agenda than Republican skepticism of free trade and immigration.

Indeed, 1820’s entry into the Maine Senate race happens to have coincided with rising fears among Republicans about some crucial Senate contests. Reed himself voiced those fears in an October interview with Axios, calling Democratic fundraising success in key Senate states “a three-alarm fire" for Republicans.

And while Reed says he “a big supporter” and longtime friend of Susan Collins, the Chamber’s concerns appear to have less to do with the benefits of federal policy for Mainers than with who controls Congress’s upper chamber come January. your social media marketing partner