by Eli Clifton
On Tuesday night, Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) won her U.S. Senate primary, lining her up to challenge incumbent Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), who also won his primary, in the November election. J Street PAC, the political arm of the liberal pro-Israel group, has already thrown its weight behind Duckworth to take on Kirk, one of the Senate’s most active opponents of the Iran deal.
Kirk has co-sponsored virtually every new piece of sanctions legislation for the past several years, and, last month, began running attack ads accusing Duckworth of “[wanting] to bring 200,000 Syrian refugees to America.” Duckworth had signed a letter calling on the White House to resettle 200,000 refugees by the end of 2016 but with only 100,000 from Syria.
J Street’s fundraising for Duckworth means they’re taking on one of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) most important allies in the Senate. Kirk received $61,914 from NORPAC, a PAC affiliated with AIPAC, in the 2010 cycle, making him the biggest recipient of NORPAC contributions in his last election cycle.
But that money pales in comparison to that being raised by a shadowy super PAC funded by some of the same hawkish billionaires who bankrolled opposition to the White House’s efforts to broker the nuclear deal with Iran.
In February 2015, a group called “Independent Voice for Illinois PAC” was formed. Since then, the group has raised $783,100 and spent $160,161, largely on political consultants and strategists. To date, it has made no pro-Kirk or anti-Duckworth expenditures. But there’s plenty of indications that it is gearing up to spend big in the race.
For starters, there’s the name of the super PAC. Kirk’s campaign website twice refers to him as an “independent voice for Illinois.” An April 2015 post on his Facebook page promoting a radio interview about the upcoming campaign simply states, “I’m proud to be an independent voice for Illinois, and proud to stand up for the rights of all citizens. That’s a fight I’ll never give up on.”
But more conclusive evidence may lie in the political activities of the super PAC’s treasurer, Jo Merlau. Merlau and her husband, Kenneth Merlau have contributed $51,800 to Kirk’s campaigns since 2003, according to FEC data. Last December, the Merlaus held a fundraiser for Kirk at their home in Winetka, IL. Ben Otthenhoff, the group’s assistant treasurer, did not respond to a request for comment.
The Merlaus and Ottenhoff are raising money from some very deep-pocketed Iran hawks. Hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer, for instance, contributed $100,000 to the super PAC. Singer is a major GOP funder and a director at the ultra-hawkish Republican Jewish Coalition. He has funneled millions into a number of the groups opposing the White House’s Iran diplomacy, including $3.6 million to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) between 2008 and 2011 and $1 million to The Israel Project (TIP) between 2012 and 2013. Singer’s hedge fund, Elliott Management, was Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-FL) second largest source of campaign contributions between 2009 and 2014.
Fellow hedge fund manager and GOP megadonor, Highfield Capital founder Jonathan Jacobson, contributed $100,000 to the super PAC. Jacobson is a generous supporter of groups supporting a hawkish U.S. foreign policy Middle East. In 2014, his foundation contributed $2 million to AIPAC, $1 million to FDD, and $25,000 to Steve Emerson’s Investigative Project on Terrorism, a fringe anti-Muslim group.
Whatever Kirk’s message to out-of-state billionaires might be, they appear to be funding a stealthy super PAC to support him in a campaign against Duckworth.
Kirk’s message to Klarman, Singer, and Jacobson may be similar to the one he delivered to donors in a 2013 invitation-only conference call. (Ali Gharib and I obtained an invitation to the call, RSVP’d, and reported on it for Salon.) Kirk, touting his efforts to introduce new sanctions legislation and launching verbal attacks on the U.S. negotiating team in Geneva, told his supporters, “It’s the reason why I ran for the Senate, [it] is all wrapped up in this battle. I am totally dedicated to the survival of the state of Israel in the 21st century,”
It would stand to reason that billionaire opponents of the White House’s signature foreign policy initiative and supporters of hawkish U.S. and Israeli policies would quietly amass a secret war chest to support Kirk, especially in a contest against a Democratic congresswoman who supported the nuclear agreement on the grounds that it advanced U.S. and Israeli security interests.