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‘Follow the money,’ say ads funded by big-money groups


“Follow the money” is perhaps the most-cited phrase from the Watergate affair, though the source called Deep Throat never actually said that to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward. Instead, it was a line written by screenwriter William Goldman for his Oscar-winning screenplay of “All the President’s Men” (1976),  based on the book by Woodward and co-author Carl Bernstein.

In the movie, Deep Throat urges Woodward to “follow the money” in order to unravel campaign malfeasance by the Nixon administration. But in a bizarre development, the phrase has now been adopted by Super PACs and 501(c)(4)s, campaign groups which can raise unlimited amounts of money from corporations, unions and others —  to attack candidates who are the beneficiary of largess from other Super PACs and 501(c)(4)s.  (Note: Super PACs must disclose their donors while 501(c)(4)s do not.)

Here are two examples.

Kentucky Opportunity Coalition’s attack on Grimes

The Kentucky Opportunity Coalition, which has supported incumbent Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), produced this ad attacking Kentucky Democratic Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes. (YouTube: Kentucky Opportunity Coalition)

“Where’s Alison Grimes on coal? Follow the money. The group spending millions to elect Grimes? It’s backed by Barack Obama and his allies. Because Obama needs followers in the Senate beholden to him. People like Alison Grimes. And Obama’s anti-coal billionaire buddies? They’re helping Grimes too. Funneling millions to Grimes’ liberal allies. She’s beholden to them. She’s not for us. That’s the real Alison Grimes.”

— voice-over of an ad by the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition

The Kentucky Opportunity Coalition is a 501(c)(4) that, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, has spent $5 million attacking a single candidate — Alison Lundergan Grimes. Its donors are not disclosed.

In this ad, the group attacks Grimes for receiving money from the Senate Majority PAC, a Super PAC affiliated with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). But then it goes a step further and tries to tie Grimes to some of the backers of SMP, such as billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer, who gave the group $5 million.

The ad flashes headlines in an especially misleading way. At one point the screen says “For Grimes: ‘anti-coal crusader …’ ‘gave $5 million.’ ” The implication is that Grimes received $5 million from Steyer. But when you dig into the articles that the ad provides as on-screen citations, it turns out that these are just unconnected facts — and one of the articles actually highlights the fact that Grimes has received no money from Steyer.

“Federal and state records indicate Steyer hasn’t contributed to Grimes’ campaign and Grimes’ campaign spokeswoman said Grimes has never met with Steyer,” said the Richmond Register in the May 7 article that is the source of the ‘anti-coal crusader’ headline.  (That’s because the newspaper called Steyer an “anti-coal crusader.”)

Scott Jennings, a spokesman for the group, defended the ad. “The script is very clear that the contribution in question from Obama’s ‘buddies’ went to Grimes’s liberal allies (the Senate Majority PAC),” he said. “We never allege or even imply she was directly the recipient of the $5 million contribution you reference. However, it is a demonstrable fact that Steyer did give $5 million to SMP and that SMP is advertising heavily in Kentucky on behalf of Grimes and against McConnell.”

The Pinocchio Test

The ad is anything but clear. We had to watch it several times to begin to understand it, and the juxtaposition of the headlines and the voice-over is particularly misleading. It’s especially strange that a group that does not disclose its donors bases its attack on the donors disclosed by another big-money group.

We have a reasonable person test here, and we think most viewers would conclude that Steyer gave $5 million to Grimes, which is what makes her so beholden to his interests. Given the citations in the ad say exactly the opposite, that’s worthy of Three Pinocchios.

Three Pinocchios




 Senate Majority PAC’s attack on Ernst

The Democratic group Senate Majority PAC released this ad attacking Iowa Republican Senate candidate Joni Ernst. (YouTube: Senate Majority PAC)

“Follow the money. It’s the oldest rule in politics. Out of state oil billionaires, the Koch brothers, are spending millions supporting Jodi Ernst’s campaign. Why? Because Jody Ernst shares their priorities: a scheme privatizing Social Security and a plan cutting Medicare’s guaranteed benefit — all to pay for tax breaks for oil billionaires. Oil billionaires like the Koch brothers. So if Joni Ernst has got their back, we can’t trust her to protect ours.”

— voiceover of Senate Majority PAC ad

In this ad, the Senate Majority PAC (which has spent more than $25 million this election cycle on attack ads) is dishing it out against the big-money groups funded by the Koch brothers, which include Americans for Prosperity and Freedom Partners.

We will overlook the dubious claim that “follow the money” is the “oldest rule in politics.” As we noted, it only dates to 1976.

The ad tries to make the case that because Ernst, the GOP candidate for the open Iowa Senate seat, benefits from Koch-funded advertising, she will simply follow their policy prescriptions. Then the ad cites two of the Democrats’ favorite attack lines — support for privatization of Social Security and an end to Medicare’s guaranteed benefit. Supposedly, the savings from cutting entitlements would go to keep tax breaks for billionaires.

We have delved into these kinds of attacks in the past and generally found them to be huge stretches. In fact, Senate Majority PAC (and the companion House Majority PAC) appears to have a cookie-cutter approach, tossing out similar attacks no matter which Republican is running. (A spokesman provided nine pages of documentation for the ad’s claims, but much of evidence is tendentious.)

The reference to Social Security stems from a remark made by Ernst in a campaign forum about having a “discussion” about “looking at transitioning our younger workers onto individual plans or individual savings accounts [while] protecting our seniors.”

That’s a far cry from “privatizing” Social Security; in fact, it could be similar to a plan advocated by Al Gore when he was the Democratic nominee for president in 2000 — or Mitt Romney when he was the GOP nominee in 2012. In any case, even the voluntary plan advocated by President George W. Bush in 2005 was killed by his own party. As we noted earlier this year, “it’s time for Democrats to stop playing this particular scare-seniors card.”

The same goes for the Medicare claim, which is based on an old House GOP plan dating from 2011. (That’s why the ad has 2011 citations.) Ernst was not in Congress but as a state lawmaker voted against a resolution in the Iowa senate that opposed GOP Medicare proposals — a nonbinding vote clearly only designed as honey for attack ads.  The current version of the GOP plan, however, retains traditional Medicare as an option.

The Pinocchio Test

As with the previous ad, this is another case of the kettle calling the pot black. It is a bit more policy-oriented than the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition ad, but these are attacks right out the Democratic playbook, based on the slimmest of reeds. Thus it is also worthy of Three Pinocchios.

Three Pinocchios


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Glenn Kessler has reported on domestic and foreign policy for more than three decades. He would like your help in keeping an eye on public figures. Send him statements to fact check by emailing him, tweeting at him, or sending him a message on Facebook.



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Glenn Kessler · September 3, 2014

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