Corry Bliss, the 35-year-old executive director of the House GOP-approved super PAC Congressional Leadership Fund and nonprofit American Action Network, a related organization, is on a mission to preserve the House majority in the 2018 midterm elections. The incumbent president’s party historically loses seats during midterms, but Bliss says he has a strategy to defy history, and he is trying to woo some of the nation’s richest to bankroll it.
Bliss joined the Congressional Leadership Fund in January 2017, an off year for elections, and immediately hit the road seeking investors. He and the six-year-old super PAC’s finance director, Mason Fink, made at least a half dozen confidential 45-minute presentations to some of the Republican Party’s most loyal billionaire mega donors in search of (at least) six-figure donations.
Fink and Bliss raised $11.7 million in less than six months (the PAC’s record for an off year) from 27 corporations and 15 individuals including four billionaires: hedge fund manager Steve Cohen, oil tycoon Paul Foster, Home Depot cofounder Bernie Marcus and Charles B. Johnson of mutual fund giant Franklin Resources.
The PAC’s message resounded thanks to a simple yet effective pitch: hyper-targeted local efforts in congressional races. “There are a lot of parallels between the business world and the campaign world,” Bliss says. He tells investors to move away from spending millions on TV ads, which he describes as the old super PAC model, and bet their money on localized data and groundwork efforts with an emphasis on congressional candidates’ local agendas. CLF still spends most of its money on ads against Democratic candidates, particularly House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, but Bliss sees the money spent on groundwork as the key to its success. “It is a new approach,” he says, “And it’s been met with open arms in the donor community.”
There are signs that CLF’s approach is working. It bet $2.3 million on opposing Rob Quist, the Democratic candidate in the Montana special election to fill U.S. Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke’s seat on June 20. Quist lost. In special elections in Kansas and South Carolina, for the vacated seats of the new CIA director Mike Pompeo and Mick Mulvaney, now director of the Office of Management and Budget, respectively, CLF had success in supporting Republican candidates.
CLF spent more than $2 million on groundwork and $6.2 million on ads against the Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff. Even though Ossoff, who had a slight advantage in the polls ahead of the election, significantly outspent Republican Karen Handel (he raised $23.6 million to Handel’s $4.6 million), the super PAC was able to help sway the results with its targeted groundwork efforts.
While Ossoff held a small lead in the polls in April, the PAC made a list of 75,000 reluctant Republican voters who it believed needed some persuasion to get out and vote in the special election. CLF delivered voters’ absentee ballots to their houses, asked them every day to turn in their ballot, and urged them to vote early. The PAC knocked on over 90,000 doors just in Georgia, according to the director.
The real difference with CLF is its approach to local field offices. “CLF is proud to be the first super PAC to execute a national field program,” Bliss said in a statement on July 10. The PAC’s field program now has a total of twelve offices in California, Florida, Georgia, Montana, Arizona, New York, and Nebraska. Bliss and his team are hoping to open eight more by the end of the year.
With the midterm elections looming on the horizon, the Congressional Leadership Fund is on a roll.
“For two years, our goal is to raise and spend $100 million to protect the House,” Bliss says. “It is the big number.”