Risky career move paid off for fundraiser Rob Collins -- and the Republicans

Rob Collins's American Action Network has injected $16 million into GOP ad campaigns.
Rob Collins's American Action Network has injected $16 million into GOP ad campaigns. (Evy Mages - For The Washington Post)
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By Jason Horowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 25, 2010

Early this year, one of the anonymous benefactors bankrolling the mysterious independent expenditure group American Action Network offered its president, Rob Collins, some advice.

"One of my early donors said to me, 'You want to know when whales get harpooned?' " said Collins, who is leading the group's day-to-day effort to return Republicans to power. " 'It's when they come to the surface.' "

Collins has decided to run that risk.

This month, he boasted that his group would hit its $25 million fundraising goal and injected $16 million into ad campaigns targeting 22 House Democrats. In contrast to the donors supplying that cash, Collins does not shy from attention. He is eager to step out of the shadow cast by Fred Malek, the Republican bundler and McCain 2008 finance chair who conceived of the American Action Network, and Karl Rove, whose brainchild organizations, American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, share office space with Collins and have raised more than $50 million.

In a new political era marked by anonymous and rampant donations, Collins, a former chief of staff to the fast-rising House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and a veteran of more than a dozen campaigns, is part of a small circle of operatives with the coveted expertise of actually running such secretive organizations. And as Republicans expect to retake the House and set their sights on the presidency, the architects of the party's resurgence and some of its most promising leaders see the 36-year-old as a top catch. He is already dressing the part.

"Let's just say the man is a clotheshorse," said Rove, citing his own "bad memories" of the pink shirt, red cuff links and flashy suit that Collins wore to Rove's Weaver Terrace group strategy meeting back in April. (The exclusive klatch is named for the street where Rove resides.) On that occasion, Collins, who has blond hair, pudgy cheeks and the congenial countenance of a pilot thanking disembarking passengers, also wore his favorite red belt buckle. It reads "Cocky," a homage to the buckle worn by a character on his favorite TV show, the Fox police procedural "Bones."

Collins has made more substantive impressions, too.

"Rob is someone who, when he worked for me, was always about the next step," said Cantor, who described Collins as a student of the new campaign finance laws but also an acute strategic thinker. "He has probably developed a knowledge base unparalleled in terms of how the laws operate, and he has an uncanny ability to identify the issues. That is a critical piece of counsel and advice that anyone would benefit from."

Rove, too, said that Collins had "an advantage" over some of his peers for having run the American Action Network, but added, "The main point about Collins is that he is an exceptionally gifted operative with a keen strategic view." Translation to donors: Collins is connected.

For months, Collins has sat in a corner office on New York Avenue listening to Grateful Dead tunes and raking in cash for the Republican cause. Collins used those dollars to cut ads targeting Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold, the onetime poster boy of campaign finance reform, and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), whom his group depicted trudging over the backs of a family in her trademark tennis shoes. Democratic incumbents in the House are suddenly facing a barrage of American Action Network-sponsored negative advertisements in their districts. One airing against Dina Titus in Nevada claims she voted for "Viagra for rapists."

All that anonymous money is disconcerting to Democrats and campaign finance reform advocates.

"They are one of a few groups that are functioning for all practical purposes as a shadow Republican Party," said Fred Wertheimer, president of the campaign finance transparency advocacy group Democracy 21, who called the anonymous spending "downright dangerous" to American democracy.

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