Pair of billionaires bankrolled super PACs that spent $10 million trying to defeat Beshear

By: - February 2, 2024 1:51 pm

School Freedom Fund ran this ad in the Kentucky governor’s race. (Screenshot)

FRANKFORT – Two billionaire mega-donors bankrolled a quartet of super PACs that spent nearly $10 million over five months last year in an effort to elect a Republican governor in Kentucky.

Reports filed this week with the Federal Election Commission show that Jeff Yass, a billionaire options trader and “school choice” crusader from the Philadelphia suburbs, and Richard Uihlein, the billionaire founder of the shipping supplies company Uline, of Lake Bluff, Illinois, provided the vast majority of financial fuel for independent efforts to unseat Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear and elect then-Attorney General Daniel Cameron.

Super PACs are unlike traditional political action committees because they can accept contributions of unlimited amounts but cannot contribute directly to or coordinate with a candidate’s campaign. Federal courts cleared the way for super PACs by striking down earlier limits on political money.

Together, the four national super PACs spent nearly $10 million, the lion’s share coming from Yass and Uihlein, between July and November promoting Cameron and attacking Beshear. It was part of more than $70 million spent to woo voters in the governor’s race in which Beshear had a financial advantage that Cameron partially offset with outside spending.

Beshear defeated Cameron by five percentage points or 67,025 votes. Cameron recently became chief executive officer of the 1792 Exchange which describes its mission as steering “public companies back to neutral on divisive, ideological issues.”

Gov. Andy Beshear, left, and Attorney General Daniel Cameron, right, with emcee David Beck met on the stage at the 143rd Fancy Farm Picnic, Aug. 5, 2023. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Austin Anthony)

The reports filed with the FEC show that one of the super PACs (Protect Freedom PAC) was bankrolled almost totally in 2023 by Yass, who has also been a financial booster of U.S. Sen. Rand Paul.

A second super PAC (American Principles Project) was nearly totally funded by Uihlein.

And it was money from both Yass and Uihlein that fueled independent advertising purchased by two other Republican super PACs, School Freedom Fund and Club for Growth Action, in the Kentucky governor’s race.

Here’s a look at what each of those four super PACs reported to the FEC this week.

Protect Freedom PAC

According to the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance, Protect Freedom PAC spent at least $2.4 million last year advocating Cameron’s election.

Protect Freedom PAC reported this week it got $3,034,584 in contributions during the last six months of 2023. And $3 million (99 percent) came from Yass — $2 million on July 14 and $1 million on Oct. 6.

This is in addition to another $3 million that Yass gave to Protect Freedom PAC earlier in 2023.

Protect Freedom PAC is run by former staffers of Sen. Paul and its website says it supports candidates who share the libertarian policies backed by the Kentucky Republican who’s serving his third term in the U.S. Senate. The PAC’s website prominently displays a photo of Paul.

Including the donations made in late 2023, Yass has contributed $20,898,000 to Protect Freedom PAC since it was founded in 2017. That’s well over three-fourths of the total contributions that Protect Freedom has gathered over that time period.

School Freedom Fund 

According to the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance, School Freedom Fund spent about $3 million last year advocating Cameron’s election.

School Freedom Fund reported this week receiving $6 million in contributions during the last half of 2023. Of that, $3 million was donated by Yass — $2 million on July 19 and $1 million on Dec. 22. Uihlein gave $2 million to School Freedom Fund on July 21. And Atlanta billionaire Bernard Marcus, the co-founder and former chief executive of The Home Depot, is listed as giving $1 million on Oct. 25.

School Freedom Fund is closely affiliated with the massive national conservative super PAC Club for Growth Action.

Its website prominently displays this message: “COVID school shutdowns have made parents and the public aware of countless abuses of power by education bureaucrats seeking self preservation over student education. By repeatedly impeding our children’s learning these individuals have hindered the development and education of our youth through school closures, mask mandates, critical race theory, and more. This creates a unique opportunity to promote School Choice as the structural solution to dramatically improve education in America.”

The Kentucky General Assembly is expected to approve a school choice constitutional amendment during its current session. The amendment, which still would have to be approved by Kentucky voters in November, would remove restrictions in Kentucky’s current constitution that bar public funds from being spent on private schools.

Club for Growth Action

According to the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance, Club for Growth Action spent about $2.4 million last year advocating Cameron’s election.

Club for Growth Action is a large super PAC that advocates for lower taxation and has many conservative donors. However, Yass and Uihlein were its largest donors by far in 2023, according to FEC reports. Yass donated $16 million to Club for Growth Action in 2023 — half of the total $32 million in contributions to Club for Growth Action in 2023. Uihlein was the second largest donor in 2023, giving $8.76 million, according to FEC reports.

American Principles Project 

According to the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance, American Principles Project spent nearly $1.7 million last year advocating Cameron’s election.

American Principles Project is mostly funded, in an indirect way, by Uihlein.

Its report to the FEC covering the last half of 2023 shows that American Principles Project got nearly $2.3 million in donations during that period. Of that, about $2.1 million came from a different PAC called Restoration PAC.

But reports filed with the FEC by Restoration PAC show it is almost exclusively funded by contributions from Uihlein.

Outside KET as supporters awaited their candidate’s arrival for a debate. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Matthew Mueller)

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Tom Loftus
Tom Loftus

Tom Loftus is a native of Cincinnati and a graduate of The Ohio State University. His long career in Kentucky journalism includes four years as Frankfort bureau chief for The Kentucky Post and 32 years as Frankfort bureau chief for The Courier Journal. He is a member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame and a freelance reporter for the Kentucky Lantern.

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