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March 18, 2022

Leora Levy’s U.S. Senate campaign involves cozy compatriots

Photo | LEORAFORCT.COM Leora Levy is a Republican running to unseat U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal.

Somewhere in a red brick townhouse in the Old Town district of Alexandria, Va., an invisible “firewall” separates a consultant advising the U.S. Senate campaign of Leora Levy from a colleague directing the super PAC created to promote Levy’s candidacy, Connecticut Patriots.

The townhouse is home to Grassroots Targeting, a smallish, well-connected consulting firm that is working for both Levy’s campaign and Connecticut Patriots, which launched the same week with the same goal: Secure the GOP nomination for Levy, then unseat Connecticut’s senior senator, Democrat Richard Blumenthal.

The arrangement is as complicated as it is synergistic. Federal law prohibits coordination between Levy’s campaign and the super PAC — while allowing both to hire the same consultant, Grassroots Targeting, for sophisticated micro-targeting of voters and donors.

It’s legal as long as Blaise Hazelwood, the consulting firm’s founding partner who also directs Connecticut Patriots, is careful what she says to the firm’s managing partner, Timothy Saler, about his client, the Levy campaign.

Awkward, perhaps. But that is the reality of campaigning a dozen years after Citizens United, the Supreme Court decision that led to new paths around campaign contribution limits for mega donors.

One of those donors in Hazelwood’s orbit is Kenneth C. Griffin, the Chicago hedge-fund billionaire who recently joined the owners of the Chicago Cubs in a bid to buy the Chelsea Football Club in Britain from its Russian oligarch owner, Roman Abramovich.

No donor can give Levy’s campaign more than $2,900 in each of its phases: convention, primary and general election. But there is no limit to what Griffin or someone like him can give a super PAC like Connecticut Patriots.

In 2018, Griffin provided $10 million of the $29 million Hazelwood spent as director of another super PAC, New Republican, to help Republican Rick Scott unseat three-term Democrat Bill Nelson in the race for U.S. Senate in Florida.

Griffin’s political contributions since 2010 are nearly $107 million, including the $42 million he gave over 2020 and 2021 to the Senate Victory Fund, the super PAC dedicated to electing a Republican majority.

Connecticut will learn in coming months if Hazelwood can attract a fraction of that largesse on behalf of Levy, who lacks the profile Scott enjoyed as Florida’s governor and is competing in a far tougher arena — a blue state that last sent a Republican to Congress in 2006 and to the Senate in 1982.

“This year is a singular opportunity for Connecticut voters to change the trajectory of the state, elect an independent voice to the United States Senate and help get America back on track,” Hazelwood wrote in an online pitch to donors. “Leora Levy, a successful businesswoman and prolific political fundraiser, is that voice.”

Hazelwood is a former political director of two current clients that have paid her firm $8 million in the past four years, the Republican National Committee and National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Levy, 65, of Greenwich is a wealthy former trader, a member of the Republican National Committee since 2016 and a nominee in 2019 for a U.S. ambassadorship to Chile by President Donald J. Trump. The Senate never voted on her confirmation.

She is competing for the GOP nomination with Themis Klarides, the former minority leader of the Connecticut House, and Peter Lumaj, among others.

Connecticut Patriots was formed on Feb. 10, two days after Levy filed her candidate papers. Leadership Now, a super PAC formed on March 14, will be supporting Klarides, according to its lawyer, Chris Ashby. He declined to say who will be running New Leadership, which shares an accountant with Klarides’ campaign.

Wouldn’t fly in a state office race

In a race for state office in Connecticut, Grassroots Targeting’s work for Levy and a super PAC almost certainly would prompt an investigation by the State Elections Enforcement Commission.

Connecticut’s election laws, which do not apply to federal campaigns, establish a strong presumption of illegal coordination when a consulting firm is shared by a candidate and an independent-expenditures super PAC. 

“There is a wide discrepancy between how the public would think of coordination and how the Federal Election Commission and federal law defines coordination,” said Beth Rotman, a former Connecticut state elections lawyer who now oversees money and politics for Common Cause.

Candidates for federal office and supportive super PACs may share advisers, media buyers and fundraising consultants if they establish a firewall, as Grassroots says it did. And unlike under Connecticut law, candidates can signal to donors when a super PAC is an ally.

A seven-page legal memo dated Feb. 3 outlined how Grassroots’ seven employees would split into two groups, a trio led by Hazelwood and a quartet led by Saler. The memo set protocols for what can and cannot be shared, electronically and in person.

Adav Noti, the FEC’s associate general counsel for policy from 2013 until 2017, said the chances of anyone checking that firewall are slim.

“It has become truly easy for super PACs to evade the rules because all you have to do is set up a firewall,” Noti said. “And no one ever checks to see if the vendors set up a firewall. And more importantly, no one ever checks to see if the firewall was followed.”

He now is the legal director of the Campaign Legal Center, a non-partisan nonprofit that sued the FEC last year after its six commissioners deadlocked along party lines over whether to pursue a case against Scott and his allied super PAC, New Republican.

Scott was the chairman of the PAC throughout 2017, when he was gearing up to run for Senate, and it was run at the time by his former chief of staff. The FEC’s non-partisan staff wanted to investigate if it had acted as a de facto campaign.

Connecticut’s election regulators have aggressively pursued allegations of illegal coordination by campaigns and independent-expenditure groups, forcing more than $100,000 in penalties in a case settled last year.

“FEC has literally never enforced the law against a super PAC for illegally coordinating with a candidate — literally never,” Noti said.

Single-candidate super PACs are standard in presidential politics and increasingly common in down-ballot federal races, but they never have been a significant influence in a Senate election in Connecticut.

Linda McMahon, the GOP’s nominee in 2010 against Blumenthal and in 2012 against Chris Murphy, had no need of outside spending. She spent $50 million of her own funds in each race. A super PAC did support Murphy, raising a relatively modest amount: $485,970, with no contribution exceeding $25,000.

Blumenthal, one of the wealthiest members of the Senate, has spent $1.7 million in this cycle so far and began the year with $7.55 million in available campaign cash. He spent $8.7 million in 2010. With no serious opposition, his 2016 reelection campaign spent $6 million in 2016.

The potential financial impact of the two super PACs — Connecticut Patriots and Leadership Now — is unclear, as they have little history in Connecticut politics.

Hazelwood declined to be interviewed, and Levy and Saler refused to talk about how a single-candidate super PAC might affect the race, citing the firewall. Klarides, by text message, took a similar tack.

“I’ve been humbled by the large turnout of support I’ve received,” Klarides said. “I’ll let the pundits discuss the other things. I’m focused on talking to voters, meeting with delegates, and building our grassroots organization across the state.”

Tim Pearson, a senior adviser to Connecticut Patriots, was slightly more forthcoming.

He said Levy is well known in the right circles, and the appeal to donors is relatively simple: With inflation up and Joe Biden’s approval rating down, there could be a GOP wave coming, and Republicans need to capitalize on every opportunity as they try to regain control of the Senate.

“It is very hard to look at the situation and the country and where voters are right now and not see that there’s going to be a wave election,” said Pearson, a former top adviser to former Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina. “And so when those kinds of environments exist, it’s important to put as many players on the field as you can.”

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