How Did Progress Kentucky Get Taken Seriously, Anyway?

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
April 12 2013 4:40 PM

How Did Progress Kentucky Get Taken Seriously, Anyway?

That's enough hairshirting for one day. Time to praise one of my colleagues again for being completely right about something. In late February, when Mitch McConnell lit into the "liberal Super PAC" Progress Kentucky for sending a tweet about him being pro-China because his wife was Chinese, Emma Roller checked Progress Kentucky's FEC report. The mighty Super PAC had raised... actually, Roller couldn't tell, because the group had failed to send in an FEC filing. They were supposed to file FEC docs by January 31, but they hadn't.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

Two days before that deadline, they did make time to talk to the Huffington Post. "One small super PAC is already exploring all options" against McConnell, wrote Paul Blumenthal. The word "small" was the only signal that the mysterious group was tiny. Its chairman, Shawn Reilly, was a Democratic Party activist who was now "actively seeking out candidates" and "letting them know that they'll have support if they run." Blumenthal recorded the mixed successes of independent groups like Senate Majority PAC and American Bridge, then the ambitions of Reilly et al.

To pull off something like this, Progress Kentucky is going to need money. So far, it is relying largely on grassroots donations and not on the kind of large contributors that most major super PACs use to fill their coffers. The group has a fundraising target of $100,000 by the end of February and hopes to raise up to $2 million to fund television, field and other voter targeting activities.
The group has also been in contact with labor unions in Kentucky and helped to roll out a report by the Public Campaign Action Fund, a campaign finance reform group, tying McConnell's use of the filibuster to particular campaign donors.
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This was pretty measured. But the headline -- "Progress Kentucky, Democratic Super PAC, Targets Mitch McConnell For Defeat In 2014" -- was the sort of thing a group might use to prove it has clout. Only now, after the group has been caught holding a recorder outside of a McConnell campaign meeting and sending the tape to reporters, are Kentucky Democrats telling of how pathetic it was.

“Other than agitating Sen. McConnell, I don’t know what they’re doing that’s helping anything,” said veteran in-state Democratic strategist Jimmy Cauley. “They’re pretty much out there on the fringe of anything I know of as the Kentucky Democratic organization.”
"They've been misrepresented as legitimate ever since the whole tweet controversy about Elaine Chao. It's like three guys with a thousand dollars who are castoffs that no one takes seriously," said one well-connected Kentucky Democrat. "They have no connection to the Kentucky Democratic Party and have no influence. I know they were trying to raise money early on last year, and they had a really hard time getting Democrats to listen to them or take their calls."

Are Democrats covering their rears and dissembling? Yes and no -- PK really was a podunk outfit, a product of the Super PAC underbelly. Its founders worked in Democratic politics for years, during a time when the party was doing quite well in state politics. But they weren't in high demand. They bet that they could be more influential, and make money, if they launched a "Super PAC." They were half right -- lots of media incentives come to those who claim to be Super PAC moguls.

"I generally try to avoid writing about these small time super PACs as they usually wind up barely registering politically," Blumenthal told me in an email. "I did think that ProgressKY could wind up being one of these groups that doesn't raise any money, turns out they did even worse for themselves than that."

But the PK story was heavily promoted, getting more than 2000 Facebook shares. This is mildly dangerous -- we hacks in the "national" press are plied all the time to look at exciting new groups and causes that are going to make waves. The founders might not be taken seriously back home -- they might, it turns out, commit crimes -- but they can get social media buzz and then schlep it to the locals.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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