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

By Jason Horowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 25, 2010; C01

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.

"The people who are doing this are going to keep doing it in 2012," Wertheimer said. "And the Democrats are going to do it too."

Collins doesn't see what all the fuss is about.

"Trying to take money out of politics is just not going to happen," said Collins, who added: "I have a weird gift for raising money."

Drawn to campaigning

On a top floor in an office building about a block from the White House, the American Action Network shares space, across from a company selling ergonomic chairs, with the groups tied to Rove. On a recent afternoon a couple of staffers sorted papers and made phone calls. A dozen chairs sat around an oval table in an empty conference room and Collins sat in his office, surrounded by empty water bottles, poster boards of potential attack ads and a thumbed paperback of "How Barack Obama Won" by NBC reporter Chuck Todd.

He boasted that he understood the importance of cash in politics early.

The fifth of six children in Syracuse, N.Y., Collins ran for high school treasurer by blanketing the school's walls with Calvin and Hobbes campaign posters. He recalled with a chuckle that the cartoon depicted Calvin rubbing his hands and saying "money" as he received his allowance.

"We just overwhelmed them," Collins said of the vanquished competition.

He went on to study politics and history in college and came to the Hill in 1999 as an intern and then legislative assistant, but was soon bored by the slog of policy work. Campaign life, with all its schmoozing and shivving, was more to his liking. By 2002, he had already made a name for himself in Republican politics as an effective spokesman when John Thune brought him in during the last weeks of the tight Senate campaign that he lost by the narrowest of margins. (Thune, now a senator from South Dakota, declined a request for an interview.)

With Thune's defeat, Collins called his friends on the Hill asking for a job where he could "kill time" until the next presidential election. They suggested Eric Cantor, who hadn't yet appeared on the operative's radar. Both Collins and Cantor shared a fondness for press attention and hit it off. In 2003, Collins suggested that Cantor call out inaccuracies in a big-budget biopic about Ronald Reagan on ABC. The resulting media storm eventually bumped the show off the network and earned Cantor reams of press.

Collins was soon given a larger portfolio over Cantor's political operation, was promoted to chief of staff and worked on the Young Guns project, a Cantor-led faction of young Republican representatives widely seen as competitive with Minority Leader John Boehner. He turned down what he called his dream job of working as a regional press official in the Bush White House. Instead, he concentrated on sharpening Cantor's political sting, increasing his public profile and boosting his campaign accounts. In his volunteer time, he helped Cantor boost his fundraising from $300,000 to $1 million. The hours of fundraising built him strong ties to the lobbyists and donors on K Street.

In February, Collins was feeling "restless" and dreading becoming "a bureaucrat," he recalled. Sensing a Republican surge on the horizon, he left Cantor's office for a new, risky venture.

"I thought I slammed the door shut on everything I ever worked for," said Collins, describing the first months at the group, before money started rolling in. "It was tough. People mentally weren't there. People weren't ready to give money. We were the new kids on the block."

Those new kids on the block had a major advantage over the old guard. In January, the Supreme Court's Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision had shifted the axis of the fundraising universe by permitting corporate spending on political ads through the election. The tax code exempted 501(c)(4) nonprofit corporations from the limits and rules on traditional independent expenditure groups by allowing them to "intervene in political campaigns as long as its primary activity is the promotion of social welfare."

Malek immediately saw the potential for a group that didn't need to disclose its donors and imagined the American Action Network as a public policy counterweight to the influential Democratic Center for American Progress. A policy arm of the organization, the American Action Forum, was established and the McCain campaign's economic adviser Douglas Holtz-Eakin came on as its president, and has put out papers with titles like "Growth Consequences of Estate Tax Reform: Impacts on Small and Family Businesses."

But the organization's impact, and intent, has clearly been political.

A host of prominent Republican donors have added their names to the board and former Minnesota senator Norm Coleman came on as director. But on Friday, Coleman's office -- a dark room with a chessboard on the table and a Vikings helmet on a bookcase -- was empty. By contrast, Collins's office was cluttered with papers and he groaned with frustration every time he typed a parenthesis around the c in 501(c)(4). His computer, he explained, turned it into a ©.

He is clearly the group's chief operative.

"He is very well tuned politically," Malek said. "He saw early the opportunity to go after the big spending issue."

'Awkward encounters'

On a recent afternoon, Collins limped into Bobby Van's steakhouse, apologizing for his tardiness and explaining that his lawyers had kept him on the phone with concerns about two of his organization's ads. He rubbed the left knee injured by a large wave while playing at the beach with his two young children. From time to time he interrupted his spiel about correcting the country's radically altered trajectory to wave at a waitress or familiar patron.

Collins is gregarious, and he said that running a group that bars contact with the Republican candidates and staffers who make up his social circle has led to "a couple of awkward encounters." He doesn't return the phone calls of candidates when they do call, and when he holds court at the Capitol Hill Club, he has to politely turn the conversation away from politics.

"Some of my best friends are running for office, so I've had to say, 'After the election, we'll get a drink,' " Collins said. The one group of political friends with whom Collins can speak freely are Rove and the other Republican operatives running patriotically named independent expenditure groups.

"C4 to C4, we can talk," Collins said.

If Republicans take the House, Cantor will be majority leader. Thune might run for president. More 501(c)(4) groups will likely spring up in advance of 2012. Rob Collins will be involved.

"I like the freedom, I like the creativity that this job provides," Collins said. "In a presidential campaign you can be creative."

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