Update, Feb. 9, 2016, 2:20 p.m.: This article has been updated to note that Republican presidential candidate John Kasich has also been targeted by negative mailers from America Needs Leadership.
As New Hampshirites prepare to vote in their state’s Republican presidential primary, allies of Chris Christie have launched an 11th-hour, “dark money” attack on Marco Rubio.
Mailers sent to New Hampshire residents have criticized Rubio, a U.S. senator from Florida, for not being tough enough on illegal immigration and for utilizing a subsidy under the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.
As first reported by The Resurgent and Mother Jones, these mailings were paid for by an upstart group called America Needs Leadership.
Christie, New Jersey’s governor, desperately needs to beat Rubio in New Hampshire to energize his sputtering campaign. Rubio has enjoyed rising poll numbers after his strong third-place finish last week in Iowa, where Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and billionaire real estate mogul Donald Trump narrowly edged him out.
According to the Columbus Dispatch, America Needs Leadership has also targeted another Christie rival with negative mailers, Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
The ad’s sponsor
America Needs Leadership is not organized as a super PAC that must disclosure its donors. Rather, it’s a nonprofit group under sec. 501(c)(4) of the U.S. tax code, which means the group is generally allowed to keep the names of its donors secret.
That designation also means that, by law, the group’s primary purpose must be “to promote social welfare,” not to engage in electoral politics — although it may advocate for or against candidates to a limited degree.
What exactly is the group’s mission? According to its all-but-empty Facebook page, America Needs Leadership wants “a new generation of leaders to step up to move our country forward with strength and resolve.”
Records with the Internal Revenue Service show that America Needs Leadership was awarded tax-exempt status as a “social welfare” nonprofit in December 2015.
Who’s behind it?
America Needs Leadership’s bare-bones website was registered in October 2015 by Kurt Luidhardt, an Indiana-based political consultant at The Prosper Group, a digital agency he co-founded in 2006. Campaigns & Elections magazine has described Luidhardt as “one of the GOP’s top thinkers in online campaigning.”
According to his official biography, Luidhardt has worked with Republican politicians including Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, former Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts — and Christie.
Campaign finance filings show two groups connected to Christie paid Luidhardt’s The Prosper Group nearly $300,000 last year.
One is America Leads, a super PAC backing Christie’s presidential bid, which paid The Prosper Group about $255,000 last year. Press reports describe Luidhardt as leading the super PAC’s digital efforts.
The other is Leadership Matters for America, a federal political action committee Christie launched last year ahead of his official presidential campaign, paid the firm about $41,000 in 2015.
Meanwhile, IRS records list Virginia-based political consultant Timothy Koch of the firm Koch & Hoos as a contact for America Needs Leadership, the sponsor of the anti-Rubio mailers. According to The Resurgent, the address of Koch’s firm was listed as the return address on the recent mailings to New Hampshire voters.
Koch also serves as the treasurer of the pro-Christie super PAC America Leads, which paid Koch & Hoos about $32,000 last year for accounting and compliance services. The now-defunct presidential campaign of Republican Rick Santorum was also among Koch & Hoos’ clients, according to federal campaign finance records.
Neither Luidhardt nor Koch responded to requests for comment from the Center for Public Integrity.
It’s unclear who’s is funding America Needs Leadership. The mailers sent to New Hampshire voters note that contributions from foreign nationals and government contractors are prohibited. But they also highlight the fact that the group may accept “unlimited contributions from individuals, corporations and other U.S. organizations” and note that America Needs Leadership “does not make contributions to, or coordinate its spending with, any candidates or political parties.”
It’s also unclear how much America Needs Leadership is spending. The group’s first official tax return—which would provide insights into how much money America Needs Leadership raised and spent during its first year of existence — will not be required to be filed with the IRS until after the November 2016 general election.
Why to watch this group
With the emergence of America Needs Leadership as an anonymous attack dog, Christie has become the latest GOP presidential candidate to benefit from “dark money” in the 2016 election.
But he’s not the first.
Secretive groups that don’t disclose their donors are playing a larger role in 2016 than any presidential primary before.
For example, a group supporting Rubio called the Conservative Solutions Project spent more than $8.5 million on TV ads last year. And fellow GOP White House contenders Jeb Bush and Bobby Jindal also saw allies utilize “social welfare” nonprofits in attempts to boost their respective campaigns.
Thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, “social welfare” nonprofit groups like America Needs Leadership may spend a portion of their funds directly calling for the election or defeat of federal candidates. That means America Needs Leadership may take on a more direct advocacy role before the 2016 presidential primary is over.
This story was co-published with Al Jazeera America and TIME.
Help support this work
Public Integrity doesn’t have paywalls and doesn’t accept advertising so that our investigative reporting can have the widest possible impact on addressing inequality in the U.S. Our work is possible thanks to support from people like you.