While the nation has been distracted by the presidential election, riots, and COVID-19, one group has been quietly altering America’s political landscape from the bottom up. Unite America, a Denver-based PAC that bills itself as nonpartisan, is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to oust conservative candidates for state legislature.
The organization describes itself as a movement of Democrats, Republicans, and independents “working to put voters first by fostering a more representative and functional government,” but a quick look at its history and supporters shows just how partisan it is. Unite America was founded in 2013 by Charles Wheelan, a Democrat and Dartmouth professor who made an unsuccessful bid for Rahm Emanuel’s congressional seat in 2009. Unite America’s original plan was to elect independent candidates who put “country over party,” and in 2018, the organization backed several independent candidates for state legislature in a number of states. After its third-party overture failed—only 14 of the 431 independent candidates on the ballots won—Unite America abandoned its strategy and turned its attention to championing liberal candidates running in GOP primaries.
Unite America identifies local primaries between conservative and liberal-learning Republicans in solidly red districts and then funnels hundreds of thousands of dollars to the more liberal candidate. The massive influx of outside dollars, much of it funded by Kathryn Murdoch, daughter-in-law of Fox News mogul Rupert Murdoch and a Biden supporter, makes it virtually impossible for the conservative opponent to compete against historic levels of spending for local races.
Nancy Barto knows this firsthand. Barto is a conservative running in Arizona’s Senate District 15 against Republican incumbent Heather Carter. Unite Arizona and its cunningly-named affiliate Our Arizona Values has poured $239,915 into defeating Barto and $12,416 into supporting Carter, a moderate with a history of voting against pro-life legislation, school choice, and First Amendment protections.
“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” Barto said in an interview with Townhall. “I just haven’t been aware of such incredible spending within a primary.”
Barto is no stranger to politics. She was first appointed to Arizona's House of Representatives in 2006 and has served in the house and state Senate for a total of 14 years. Currently a state representative, she decided to make another state Senate bid after constituents complained they did not have a viable candidate who represented their values. But in recent weeks, voters have been flooded with pro-Carter mailers, phone calls, and even television ads on a daily basis. Campaign paraphernalia has attacked Barto as a fake conservative, despite her 100% rating from Arizona’s foremost family values organization, as well as endorsements from Susan B. Anthony List and Arizona Right to Life. The group has also invested thousands of dollars into defeating Steve Montenegro and Justin Wilmeth, conservatives running for the Arizona House against Republicans backed by Unite Arizona.
“In a Republican primary, you’re generally dealing with Republicans who support your values,” Barto said. “Here you’ve got liberal progressives supporting my Republican opponent because she often crosses the aisle in supporting their agenda. To see such blatant involvement from outside Arizona – it’s shameless.”
The same thing happened to Debra Irvine, a longtime conservative who ran for the Colorado state Senate in its deep-red District 8. In June, Irvine lost her primary to incumbent Robert Rankin, a Republican whose voting record includes authorizing gender changes on birth certificates, taxpayer-funded full-day kindergarten, and granting illegal aliens drivers licenses which, as of July 1, automatically registers them to vote. Rankin received some $82,000 dollars from Coloradans for Constitutional Values, one of Unite America’s Colorado PACs. The group bombarded voters with pro-Rankin television, Instagram, and YouTube ads in addition to sending mailers almost daily, hiring teams to knock doors, and launching push polls—all for a state senate primary.
“I was dumbfounded. That was absolutely unprecedented,” Irvine told Townhall. “I consider myself quite well-versed in Colorado politics, having worked on multiple campaigns, served as county chair for years, and worked on my own campaigns. I’d never seen anything like this before.”
Irvine campaigned against Rankin’s legislative record and beat the eight-year incumbent by 11 percent in an early nominating assembly vote in April. The upset did not matter once the outside money started rolling in, however. Irvine, who spent more than $30,000 of her own money on the race, was unable to keep up with the influx of outside funds in the closing months of the match-up. Rankin won the June primary by 26 points.
Unite America employed the same strategy in Virginia’s 2019 primaries. The group created a new state chapter, Unite Virginia, and assembled a bipartisan slate of primary candidates, including Republican Emmett Hanger, whose liberal record on Medicaid, abortion, guns, and taxes earned him a conservative challenger. But thanks to Unite Virginia and its $10,000 donation, Hanger won, along with the group’s other two candidates.
Although Democrats tout campaign finance reform on the trail, liberals have found success by flooding local elections with national dollars to advance their agenda, according to Scott Walter, president of Capital Research Center, a non-profit that tracks election donations.
"Liberals are the loudest 'dark money' hawks in Congress and in the media complaining about money influencing elections, but they rarely seem to notice the scads of 'dark money' helping Democrats,” Walter said in a statement to Townhall. Walter noted that companies often funnel millions of dollars into phony nonprofits based in states with key elections and receive “virtually no criticism from the money-in-politics crowd.”
Irvine predicts that Unite America's success in her primary will embolden liberal activists to infiltrate future state legislative primaries. She urges party leaders and conservative candidates to be ready, because what happens in the legislature directly shapes a state’s values.
“This is a really important story and it is a national story,” she said. “They’re coming for you next. Change your strategy. This is how they keep true Republicans and conservatives out of the legislature.”
Arizona’s primary takes place Tuesday, August 4. Barto knows her campaign faces an uphill battle, but she is determined to stay positive.
“In some ways, it’s an encouragement as to how effective our grassroots campaign has been in this particular race that they’ve had to respond in this way this late in the game,” Barto said. “This campaign has always been about looking at our voting records on the issues. We’re trusting the voters to do their homework and look past the sham attacks.”