The text messages arrived on Monday, the day before Kansans were set to vote on an amendment that would excise abortion protections from their state constitution.
“Women in KS are losing their choice on reproductive rights,” the text warned. “Voting YES on the Amendment will give women a choice. Vote YES to protect women’s health.”
The unsigned messages were described as deceptive by numerous recipients, including former Democratic governor Kathleen Sebelius, who also served as health and human services secretary in the Obama administration. She told The Washington Post that she was “stunned to receive the message, which made clear there was a very specific effort to use carefully crafted language to confuse folks before they would go vote.”
The gambit was all the more alarming to abortion rights advocates and watchdogs because its source was unknown.
But the messages were crafted by a political action committee led by Tim Huelskamp, a former hard-line Republican congressman from Kansas, and enabled by a fast-growing, Republican-aligned technology firm, according to people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the advertising blitz. The people and groups behind the campaign have not been previously reported.
The messages were sent from phone numbers that had been leased by Alliance Forge, based in Sparks, Nev. Founded in 2021, Alliance Forge describes itself as the “nation’s fastest growing political technology company, proudly serving federal, state, and local campaigns throughout the nation.”
The numbers were leased by Alliance Forge from Twilio, a San Francisco-based communications company. The numbers were disabled Monday evening, according to a Twilio spokesman, Cris Paden, who said the account that had leased them was in violation of the company’s policies prohibiting the “spread of disinformation.”
In a statement, Alliance Forge chief executive David Espinosa said that “Alliance Forge did not consult on this message’s messaging strategy or content.” He said the company was notified Monday night of a “possible content violation” and “immediately began working with the Twilio team to identify the source and nature of the content.”
The Alliance Forge client that sent the messages was Do Right PAC, chaired by Huelskamp, who served in Congress between 2011 and 2017. The PAC has raised more than $532,000 and spent more than $203,000 in support of the amendment, according to a filing last month. Huelskamp did not respond to calls and a text message seeking comment.
The Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission said Monday that, “under current law, text message advocacy about constitutional ballot initiatives does not require paid-for disclaimers.”
This election cycle, Alliance Forge has been paid more than $60,000 by federal campaigns alone, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission. Its clients have included Adam Laxalt, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Nevada, and a committee associated with Kathy Barnette, a political commentator and unsuccessful candidate for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania. Alliance Forge provided text-messaging services for both, filings show.
The texts sent Monday did not mention Alliance Forge or its client, leaving no clear way for people who received the messages to tell who was seeking to push them in favor of a “Yes” vote.
The effort offered fresh evidence of the power of text messages in political campaigning, as well as the covert style of communications made possible by the platform. Two days after the 2020 election, a Republican firm run by a top aide to then-President Donald Trump’s campaign helped send unsigned text messages that urged supporters in Philadelphia to converge outside a building where local election officials were counting votes. It blared: “ALERT: Radical Liberals & Dems are trying to steal this election from Trump!”
Reports filed with the Kansas ethics commission illustrate keen interest in the outcome of Tuesday’s referendum, the first major vote on abortion since Roe v. Wade was overturned in June. The opposing camps have spent $11.2 million this year, with the Catholic Church and its affiliates dispensing $3.4 million in support of the amendment that could give legislators the ability to impose new abortion restrictions and the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood spending $382,000 and $1.3 million, respectively, to oppose it.
Espinosa, an information technology specialist, is among Alliance Forge’s co-founders. The others are Michael Clement, a Republican operative whose LinkedIn profile says he managed the 2020 campaign of Rep. Burgess Owens (R-Utah), and Greg Bailor, a former state director for the Republican National Committee and executive director of the Nevada Republican Party.