Glenn Beck worked the crowd like a preacher at a rally this month in Louisville, Ky., declaring that God had responded to conservatives’ prayers by sending a slate of tea party candidates to wrest control of the Republican Party from Mitch McConnell.
But there was a more earthly benefit to the arrangement that brought Beck to the rally. It was organized by the tea party nonprofit group FreedomWorks, which had endorsed the candidates — and which has paid more than $6 million in recent years to have Beck promote the group, its initiatives and events.
The FreedomWorks-Beck relationship is just one example of a powerful and profitable alliance between the conservative movement’s most aggressive groups and the most popular radio hosts. The details of the arrangements are little-known, but they have been lucrative for the recipients, and, in turn, have helped ensure that the groups get coveted airtime from hosts with a demonstrated ability to leverage their tens of millions of listeners to shape American politics. It’s an alliance that helped spawn the anti-establishment tea party and power Republicans to landslide victories in the 2010 midterms. It’s also exacerbated congressional gridlock by pushing a hard line on the budget, immigration and Obamacare, and it is roiling the Republican Party headed into critical midterm elections.
A POLITICO review of filings with the Internal Revenue Service and Federal Election Commission, as well as interviews and reviews of radio shows, found that conservative groups spent nearly $22 million to broker and pay for involved advertising relationships known as sponsorships with a handful of influential talkers including Beck, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Mark Levin and Rush Limbaugh between the first talk radio deals in 2008 and the end of 2012. Since then, the sponsorship deals have grown more lucrative and tea party-oriented, with legacy groups like The Heritage Foundation ending their sponsorships and groups like the Tea Party Patriots placing big ad buys.
The power of the tea party-talk radio nexus will be tested headed into the pivotal 2014 midterm elections. It has already played a key role in boosting tea party heroes like Matt Bevin and Chris McDaniel — both of whom attended FreedomWorks’ Louisville rally and have made multiple appearances on Beck’s shows — in their increasingly bitter long-shot primary challenges to powerful incumbents Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Thad Cochran of Mississippi, respectively.
The hosts’ stances on candidates and issues usually align naturally with those of the groups. While their positioning occasionally seems to evolve with their sponsors, there is no evidence of hosts revising their views for paid advertising.
Critics, though, say the deals mislead grass-roots conservative activists, while undermining the credibility of the hosts and the groups.
“People like Beck and Hannity and Rush are nothing without the people who faithfully hang on their every word — I consider that a constituency trust that should be respected,” said former House Majority Leader Dick Armey. He was ousted from FreedomWorks in a bitter feud, but had been chairman when the group signed its contracts with Beck and Limbaugh. “For them to basically sell their influence and say whatever the contract asks of them, it compromises the integrity of the pundit-guru, as it were, and it’s an undignified expenditure on the part of the outfit that’s mining the attention.”
The talkers: From Rush to Rusty
In addition to Beck, at least four other hosts have entered into advertising arrangements of various sorts with tea party groups aiming to upend the 2014 primaries:
• Sean Hannity: Heritage began sponsoring Hannity in 2008 and paid $1.3 million in 2011 to a broker to arrange and fund the deal, according to the group’s IRS filings. Last year, Hannity began doing ads for the Tea Party Patriots, lending his name to fundraising drives, hosting its leaders on his radio and Fox News shows, and even using the Fox airwaves to promote the Tea Party Patriots website HannityforSanity.com.
• Mark Levin: The Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity paid at least $757,000 primarily to sponsor his radio show — a sponsorship that covered part of the 2012 cycle, when he joined David Koch and AFP president Tim Phillips in boosting Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch. After AFP ended its sponsorship, Levin began doing ads for the Tea Party Patriots, touting its campaign to “fire” House Speaker John Boehner. He also apologized for endorsing Hatch, whom some Tea Party Patriots’ leadersopposed.
• Rush Limbaugh: The Heritage Foundation at the end of January ended its five-year sponsorship of El Rushbo’s show, for which it had paid more than $2 million in some years and more than $9.5 million overall. In 2012, FreedomWorks paid at least $1.4 million to make him an endorser, though it’s not clear that the sponsorship is ongoing.
• Rusty Humphries: While Humphries lost his long-running radio show late last year, he re-emerged last month as a video show host and blogger at The Washington Times and hooked up with a PAC called the Tea Party Leadership Fund. “I got involved when they asked me,” he said of the group, which has paid him $15,500 over the past few months to serve as spokesman for a campaign to support Boehner’s long-shot primary challenger, a local high school teacher. The effort included a February fundraising email declaring “with your support behind him, he cannot loose [sic].”
Beck, through a spokesman, declined to comment, as did Premiere Radio Networks, which syndicates Beck’s show as well as Hannity’s and Limbaugh’s. FreedomWorks, Hannity, Levin and Limbaugh either could not be reached or would not respond to requests for comment.
Defenders of the contracts cast them as a happy blend of common cause and shrewd advertising, which was on display during Levin’s show on Tuesday.
“I’ll never give up on the American dream and neither will my friends at the Tea Party Patriots,” Levin told his listeners. “Pursue your American dream, join the Tea Party Patriots at TeaPartyPatriots.org.”
A spokesman for the Tea Party Patriots declined to discuss the cost or strategy behind the advertising campaign, which began running last summer, and downplayed its significance.
“We’re just advertisers on a radio show,” said Scott Hogenson. “It’s like people buying advertising space on POLITICO. It’s the same thing.”
But Genevieve Wood, an official at Heritage, said her group’s talk radio sponsorships provided a huge benefit.
“A lot of folks around the country learned about Heritage and that you could become a member because of Rush and Sean,” she said, explaining the group ended its contracts because they had run their course. “Even McDonald’s doesn’t advertise consistently, year after year, week after week.”
There’s little analogue for the phenomenon on the left. Liberal talk radio lacks major audience and financial support. And there’s currently relative ideological uniformity on the left, where no robust protest movement is seeking a mass channel to circumvent more established liberal or Democratic communications organs.
“That kind of internecine warfare isn’t happening on the left. I haven’t seen any evidence of it. Or, if it is, it’s not well funded,” said Thom Hartmann, the leading light of progressive talk radio. His advertising roster includes outfits targeting wealthy liberals, like an organic winemaker, as well as some of the same commercial companies that advertise on conservative talk radio — computer security firms and gold coin sellers — but no advocacy groups or candidates. “Progressive candidates, progressive groups — they don’t traditionally buy advertising on progressive shows, and I think the reason why is they know we’re singing their song anyway.”
Talk radio is seen on the right as a fundraising gold mine that can steer hundreds of thousands of loyal listeners and would-be donors to the websites of the advertising groups and those of their endorsed candidates, credit cards at the ready.
In the days before FreedomWorks’ FreePAC rally in Louisville, Beck urged his listeners to go to FreedomWorks website to buy general admission tickets for $15 or VIP passes for $50, explaining, “I will be there along with everybody else. Make sure you join us. This is the kickoff now for FreedomWorks for the fall campaign.”
The groups provide their sponsored hosts with scripts for on-air plugs, known in the industry as live-reads. Deals differ from host to host, but most provide the sponsoring group a certain number of live-reads, which usually steer listeners to its website and encourage donations, as well as ads for the sponsoring groups on the hosts’ websites, and sometimes a certain number of signed fundraising emails and appearances.
A source with knowledge of FreedomWorks’ contract with Beck, though, said it does not require him to appear at events. He agreed to speak in Louisville and at other FreePAC rallies, as well as at a 2011 FreedomWorks major donor event on South Carolina’s Kiawah Island, because he cares about the group’s mission, the source said. “The important thing is not whether the company is a nonprofit involved in politics, selling flowers or protecting hard drives, it is whether Glenn believes in them, and he believes the listener benefits from FreedomWorks and his radio show’s other clients,” the source said, adding Beck dropped General Motors as a sponsor when it accepted money from a federal bailout he opposed.
Hogenson didn’t answer a question about whether the Tea Party Patriots’ radio advertising deals include appearances. The group had tapped Hannity to appear at its fifth anniversary rally in February, eventually bumping him for Levin, which Hogenson suggested was due to “unexpected events.” A lawyer in the Reagan administration, Levin told the Patriots that the beloved late president “would be enormously proud of you.”
An internal FreedomWorks memo shed light on the fundraising return yielded by the sponsorships. The memo — presented to the group’s board and obtained and posted by Mother Jones magazine — indicated that, during the first 11 months of 2012, the Beck sponsorship had yielded $860,000 in contributions, while the Limbaugh sponsorship had brought in $433,000. That’s less than 30 percent of the total the group paid to the broker who set up the sponsorships in 2012, according to its tax filings, though, to be sure, the sponsorships also helped the group engage activists who did not donate.
Still, Armey opposed FreedomWorks’ contracts with Beck and Limbaugh as too costly and far afield from the organization’s mission of electing conservative politicians and reducing government spending and regulation. But he was forced out as chairman of FreedomWorks weeks before the 2012 election. His argument, he said was “and still is — is that, if you get earned media, then it’s going to be because it’s earned and that will be a reflection of what it is you did that earned the attention of somebody in the media,” Armey said. “If you have paid media, then basically you’re paying somebody to tell your story the way that you want it told.”
Nonprofit groups’ tax documents typically aren’t filed until nearly a year after the relevant year, and any sponsorship payments they list are usually to a syndication service or a broker rather than the hosts or their production companies. The broker typically gets a commission and the syndication service gets a big cut, industry sources told POLITICO.
The hosts themselves are hardly hurting for revenue streams, with syndicators paying millions each year to distribute their shows, not to mention other lucrative sidelines, like the branded merchandise Beck sells and the books some hosts seem to crank out faster than Danielle Steel. Senate Conservatives Fund paid at least paid $427,000 to Simon & Schuster to purchase copies of one of Levin’s books in September and October of 2013. And Levin — whose radio show introduction refers to him as “our leader” — is president of a legal nonprofit, which paid him a salary of more than $300,000 a year (his brother earns about $170,000 from the group).
When POLITICO first revealed the details of conservative advocacy groups’ radio sponsorship contracts in 2011, Levin called out the story as “drivel” and one of the reporters for “unprofessionalism and ideologically-driven writing.”
Conservative groups “that advertise on conservative talk shows are openly promoting their causes, activities, and services to millions of listeners,” Levin wrote. “Furthermore, most national hosts have a say about what advertisers are appropriate for their networks to run during their programs.”
The candidates: Bevin, McDaniel and Brannon
Beck, in particular, was an early force behind the tea party movement, encouraging listeners to rally against President Barack Obama’s ambitious first-term agenda, and even organizing rallies of his own. Limbaugh, Levin and Hannity weren’t far behind.
They, their adoring audiences and tea party groups supplied early support that helped lift Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Ted Cruz of Texas to primary election victories over establishment favorites in 2010 and 2012, respectively.
They’re trying for a repeat in 2014, pushing hard against establishment Senate favorites challenged by tea partiers like Bevin (whom Beck said was “called of God”), McDaniel (whom Levin said was “solid as a rock”) and Greg Brannon of North Carolina (whom Beck called “one of the more well-spoken, well-thought-out constitutional candidates”).
The tea partiers have been endorsed by FreedomWorks and the Tea Party Patriots and have gotten ample on-air support from the hosts with whom the groups advertise, which they’ll need to offset opposition from deep-pocketed GOP establishment groups, including Karl Rove’s American Crossroads super PAC.
Brannon, a Raleigh-area doctor, added more volunteers and raised more money in the month after his first appearance on Beck’s show than in any previous month, he told Beck during his second appearance.
Beck responded by urging his listeners, “If you have money, donate. If you have time, donate. GregBrannon.com.” But he also added a bit of shtick betraying his radio roots in the early 1980s as a Top 40 disc jockey in the then-emerging “morning zoo” genre. “I could tongue-kiss you and I’m not a guy who does that,” said Beck, who has become increasingly engaged in primary politics since the early days of the tea party and his partnership with FreedomWorks.
Beck’s contract doesn’t call for him to give airtime to either FreedomWorks’ officials or its endorsed candidates, according to the source familiar with it, who suggested Beck has spent more time boosting candidates this cycle because there are more candidates he likes.
But Beck and FreedomWorks have also suffered their share of high-profile electoral embarrassments. In 2012, FreedomWorks helped oust longtime Sen. Dick Lugar in the Indiana GOP Senate primary, only for its guy, Richard Mourdock, to implode in the general election, plus it spent heavily on an unsuccessful effort to oust Hatch.
Levin had supported Hatch, and he blistered FreedomWorks for opposing the Utah senator, calling Armey “a highly paid, which is fine by me, lobbyist in Washington” with little to show for his time in Congress. “This is what happens when decisions are run out of offices in Washington,” Levin wrote on his Facebook page. (His sponsor around that time, Americans for Prosperity, is a longtime FreedomWorks rival and is located in Washington’s Northern Virginia suburbs).
Hatch prominently featured endorsements from Levin, Hannity and fellow talker Laura Ingraham in a flyer that lashed FreedomWorks as “reckless” and “power hungry” — “an out-of-state special interest group.”
Some FreedomWorks staffers grumbled that Levin was motivated at least partly by the fact that FreedomWorks, after inquiring about sponsoring Levin’s show, ultimately decided that it would get more bang for its buck by going with his then-rival, Beck. “There were posters at the march on Washington saying, ‘thank you, Glenn Beck,’” FreedomWorks executive Adam Brandon said at the time, referring to a seminal tea party rally in September 2009. “There weren’t signs saying, ‘thank you, Mark Levin.’” (The hosts say they’ve since patched things up.)
The evolutions: An apology
After Levin signed on last year with the more anti-establishment Tea Party Patriots, he apologized for endorsing Hatch after the veteran lawmaker expressed support for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Levin has since endorsed a number of challengers to incumbent senators, including Milton Wolf’s primary against Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts. Driving home his anti-establishment posture, Levin accused Roberts of “going through the strategy hatched by Orrin Hatch. He has lurched to the right in the primary process and to get reelected, but he is a well-known establishment Republican.”
Many deep-pocketed conservative groups are looking for hosts who adhere to an ideological orthodoxy, asserted Michael Medved, a nationally syndicated conservative talker. Such groups have shied away from sponsoring his show, he suggested, because of his less-confrontational approach to the tea party-vs.-establishment power struggle and his support for immigration reform.
Tea party groups and their sponsorees peddle the idea that “you have to replace mushy moderates and establishment people with true conservatives, and the tea party. That’s a narrative that I would be very uncomfortable with, because I don’t agree with it,” explained Medved, whose show nonetheless has accepted advertising from the American Conservative Union and other outfits. “There are a lot of the potential sponsors who are involved with various conservative organizations for whom my ‘heresy’ — in quotes — on immigration creates a problem,” said Medved.
The hosts aren’t necessarily just following their sponsors’ leads, though.
When FreedomWorks endorsed Shane Osborn over Ben Sasse for the May 13 Nebraska GOP Senate primary to replace retiring Republican Sen. Mike Johanns, Beck didn’t follow suit. Instead, he welcomed both candidates on the show, telling Osborn matter of factly, “You’ve been endorsed by FreedomWorks … [and] I’ve heard from many friends and a lot of people that you are really fantastic,” but he later showered Sasse with praise, telling him late last month, “I can hear the Constitution running through your veins, which is very, very good.”
Days later, FreedomWorks, in a highly unusual move, switched its endorsement to Sasse, with some Osborn allies privately blaming Beck.
His sponsorship with FreedomWorks in 2013 was set to pay for ads on his radio show, his independent TV show and a partnership with the “action center” affiliated with his news website The Blaze, which was set to sublease 1,400 square feet of space in FreedomWorks’ sleek Capitol Hill office suite, according to the 2012 board memo. The source with knowledge of Beck’s contract said it was unrelated to the rented space, and pointed out that other media companies also lease space in the building.
And, by Beck’s own account, he played a pivotal role in steering FreedomWorks through the split with Armey, empowering Beck’s allies at the group, who were the primary advocates for the sponsorship contract, after Armey temporarily ousted them from power. Beck called the major donors who compose the FreedomWorks board and said “if you allow this coup to sit, we’re done and we’ll expose it,” according to an account he shared with his listeners several months later. “Well, it wasn’t even a week later, the board took a vote to reinstate” his allies and “escorted the leader of this coup and his cronies out the door for good,” Beck recalled triumphantly of his dealings with Armey, whom he continues to assail on his shows, last month calling him “the fat guy.”
Armey laughed off Beck’s characterization of his role in the coup. In fact, Armey asserted that Beck, who at the time was trying to build up his own network after leaving a rich Fox News contract, expressed concern over the prospect that FreedomWorks might cancel his contract.
Plus, Armey contended, the FreedomWorks-Beck alliance has been struggling, pointing to a $1 million line of credit the group was forced to take out in 2013 in the face of flagging fundraising, and a mixed record in recent elections. If polls hold, the group can expect more of the same, Armey predicted.
“I take a look at these races in Mississippi with Cochran and especially the one in Kentucky with McConnell, and I would call it a fool’s errand and therefore tailor-made for Glenn Beck, and you can quote me on that.”