by Eli Clifton
On June 20, Georgia’s 6th District will hold a runoff election between Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel for the congressional seat vacated by Tom Price when he left to serve as President Trump’s secretary of health and human services. The race is close, especially for a traditionally Republican district, and poses an early test for congressional Republicans facing anti-Trump frustration as the Republican president faces record low approval numbers in his first 100 days in office.
Ossoff, a first time candidate, raised an impressive $8.2 million in campaign funds, more than 60 percent of it coming from small donations of $200 or under, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
But a super PAC with ties to Trump’s biggest campaign backers, casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam, is making a $6.5 million investment in the campaign against Ossoff. Three million was spent before an April 18 special election and the group has pledged another $3.5 million to support Handel before the June election.
The media often characterizes the super PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund (CLF), as a tool of the Republican leadership and Speaker of the House Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI). But that description glosses over the CLF’s growing dependence on the Adelson family over the past three election cycles.
In 2012 and 2014, FEC disclosures show that the Adelsons contributed $5 million. But in 2016 they upped their support to $20 million, with two $10 million contributions issued on August 29. The Adelsons’ 2016 contributions accounted for approximately 40% of the group’s receipts in the 2016 election cycle.
FEC filings show that American Action Network, a shadowy 501(c)(4) group that doesn’t disclose its donors and shares employees and an address with the CLF, is the biggest donor ($3.5 million) to the CLF in the 2018 cycle with the Adelsons not making any disclosed contributions.
But the longstanding dependence on the Adelsons and the tone of the attack ads on Ossoff would suggest that the GOP’s biggest donors are showing an interest in Georgia’s 6th District, a race 1,700 miles from the casino magnate’s home in Las Vegas, Nevada.
The attack ads have made a series of accusations against Ossoff, many of which are xenophobic and inaccurate but reflect the Nevada billionaire’s hawkish views .
In one commercial aired by the CLF, a voiceover says:
Al Jazeera, a media outlet that has been described as a mouthpiece for terrorists, has been paying Jon Ossoff thousands of dollars. But Jon refuses to tell voters exactly how much money he’s received. Just like Jon refuses to tell voters the truth about his experience. What is he hiding?
The point is, some people have a bad opinion of Al Jazeera and others think it’s done good work. The ad cherry-picked images and a quote that cast Al Jazeera in the most dubious light possible. That characterization was the basis for the rest of the ad.
As for the accusation that Ossoff was paid thousands of dollars by Al Jazeera, Politifact concluded that:
During the time frame covered in his [2016 to 2017] financial disclosure, Ossoff’s firm produced two film projects, one for Al Jazeera and one for the BBC. Al Jazeera has been a major client over the years, but going back to the start of 2016, it is one out of 13.
Politifact rated the CLF’s description of Al Jazeera “mostly false.”
A mailing sent out earlier this month struck an even more xeonophobic tone, telling voters, “Once you’ve worked for [Al Jazeera]… you can’t work for us.”
— peyton edwards (@peytoned) April 5, 2017
Other CLF commercials attempted to link Ossoff to the Iran nuclear agreement, an unusual focus for a congressional race in which Ossoff has stated his support for the deal but didn’t hold elected office at the time the deal was reached. Indeed, attempting to link Ossoff to the nuclear deal is a recurring theme.
One commercial claimed, “[House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA)] supported the Iranian nuclear deal that weakened our national security and Jon Ossoff is on her side.” Another states, “Jon Ossoff supports the dangerous Iranian nuclear deal.”
The Adelsons opposed the White House’s efforts to reach a diplomatic agreement to constrain Iran’s nuclear program. Groups funded by Adelson, such as the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and United Against a Nuclear Iran, as well as congressional Republicans who are deeply dependent on the Adelsons for campaign funds, were in lockstep opposing the agreement.
Sheldon Adelson’s views on Iran were laid bare in 2013 when he told a Yeshiva University audience that Obama should launch a first-strike nuclear attack on a swath of uninhabited Iranian desert and threaten that Iran will be “wiped out” if the country’s leadership doesn’t dismantle their nuclear program.
Ossoff, for his part, has picked up the endorsement of the “Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace” J Street, a group which supported the nuclear agreement. Its endorsement read:
As a Congressional aide, Ossoff worked on legislation to secure funding for Israel’s defense systems and worked to demand inspection of Iran’s nuclear sites. Ossoff is a supporter of the Iran deal and will oppose efforts in Congress to undermine or obstruct its implementation.
That endorsement brought in $60,000 in campaign contributions, according to J Street, a notable haul but a far reach from the millions in out-of-state dark money flooding in via the CLF. If the Adelsons have maintained their role as the CLF’s top donors, much of the $6.5 million targeting Ossoff may be coming from the GOP’s two biggest donors and the biggest funders of opposition to the Obama administration’s diplomacy with Iran.