Kentucky group is the PAC that couldn’t shoot straight

It might be America’s least-super super PAC.

Progress Kentucky, a liberal group that wants to unseat Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), has been in existence for four months. It has raised just $1,000 and has spent only $18.

And twice already, its members have made national news by attempting to embarrass McConnell — but instead, embarrassing themselves.

Back in February, the group had to apologize for tweets about McConnell’s Taiwan-born wife. Now, two people affiliated with Progress Kentucky have been blamed for a surreptitious recording of a McConnell campaign strategy session, a recording that is under federal investigation.

All this attention, for a handful of low-level operatives from Louisville.

Their story illustrates a flip side to the new tools of American political camouflage. The same things that are used to make powerful interests seem humble and ordinary — the equal-access platform of Twitter, the cloaking devices of modern campaign finance — served, in this case, to make the ordinary seem powerful.

“They are equal parts attention-[craving] and totally incompetent,” said Joe Sonka, a political columnist for the alternative weekly Louisville Eccentric Observer, of the Progress Kentucky staff.

On Friday, it seemed that Progress Kentucky — or what was left of it — was deep in trouble. This week, its treasurer resigned. A lawyer for another of the group’s leaders, liberal activist Shawn Reilly, blamed a former group member, Curtis Morrison, for secretly taping McConnell and his campaign staff.

And Morrison lost his day job.

“I walked into the office and I said, ‘We’re done,’ ” said Terry Boyd, for whom Morrison worked as a freelancer at an online news site in Louisville. The reason for the firing: Boyd had just heard a news report that blamed Morrison for the taping.

After that, Boyd said, Morrison “just packed up his stuff and left. He didn’t clarify anything and I didn’t want to know.”

None of the three men — the treasurer, Reilly, or Morrison — could be reached for comment Friday. On his personal blog, Morrison wrote, “I am not doing interviews at this time and have no plans to do so in the near future.”

It was a sorry moment for a group with the grandiose mission to beat McConnell, one of the most powerful Republicans in America — and do it in a state that was already red and getting redder.

“Nobody else is doing it. So let’s start a super PAC and make it a grass-roots effort,” Reilly told the Huffington Post this year, explaining the group’s origins.

People in Kentucky thought these might not be the guys to do it.

Both Reilly, 30, and Morrison, 44, have been active in liberal causes around Louisville. Reilly worked for Americans Against Escalation in Iraq, a MoveOn-linked group that held a series of protests in the summer of 2007. One was held outside McConnell’s house. Morrison was active in the local Occupy movement and a vocal opponent of attempts to move protesters out of a local park.

Even in Louisville, however, they were not dominant players. Both, for instance, had made unsuccessful bids for the state Senate. They gained their most recognition for a fairly obscure fight: the battle against proposed tolls on two new bridges to Indiana. They lost.

“They’re small potatoes, man. They’re just like me,” said James Pence, who runs a Kentucky political blog called Hillbilly Report. But somehow, this year, they became national news.

“It’s amazing,” Pence said Friday, “that these two regular people can stir up this much controversy.”

Their transformation began in December, when Progress Kentucky registered as a “super PAC” — a new kind of political entity allowed to spend without limits and to accept some kinds of cloaked donations.

That gave it the same standing as powerhouses such as Karl Rove’s American Crossroads. It did not have the same cash. So Progress Kentucky went after McConnell on the cheap.

“We have come to his home, to sing to him,” Reilly said outside McConnell’s house in December as a video camera rolled. An amateur choir struck up satirical — though largely unintelligible — songs that criticized McConnell, set to the tune of Christmas carols.

The group also attacked McConnell in the free medium of Twitter. But that quickly backfired. In December, Progress Kentucky sent tweets that linked McConnell’s views on outsourcing to the ethnicity of his wife, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao. The group apologized, and Morrison resigned.

The current controversy began with a recording released on the Web site of the magazine Mother Jones. On the tape, apparently made in February, McConnell and his aides discussed material that might be used against actress Ashley Judd, who was contemplating a run against him. Judd later said she wouldn’t run.

In both cases, actions meant to hurt McConnell came to help him instead. Suddenly, one of the most powerful men in America could play the victim.

McConnell used the ugly tweets in a campaign commercial. He has cited the recordings in news conferences and fundraising e-mails, decrying the “Nixonian” tactics of the political left and the liberal media.

Now, the FBI is investigating the recording. In Kentucky, it is illegal to record a conversation without permission from one of the parties involved. In this case, those recorded were McConnell’s staff members, on the other side of a closed office door.

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Rachel Weiner covers local politics for The Washington Post.
David A. Fahrenthold covers Congress for the Washington Post. He has been at the Post since 2000, and previously covered (in order) the D.C. police, New England, and the environment.
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