Just like the influential conservative nonprofit that he runs, American Action Network Chairman Norm Coleman likes to fly below the political radar.
In contrast to GOP operative Karl Rove, who helped launch the American Crossroads super PAC and its affiliated nonprofit, Coleman is never blasted by Democrats railing against big money. Nor is he a favorite news profile subject, as is American Crossroads Political Director Carl Forti.
But the former Republican Senator from Minnesota is at the center of GOP fundraising, campaign strategy and policy from the top of the ticket on down in 2012. As chairman of both the AAN and its affiliated super PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund, Coleman has been on the vanguard of raising and spending unrestricted money in the post-Citizens United era. He has the ear of presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, as a top foreign policy adviser to the former Massachusetts governor.
“Now that I’m not in the Senate, I’m really not looking for publicity,” admitted Coleman, 62, who co-founded the AAN in 2010 with Fred Malek, a longtime GOP operative who chairs the Thayer Lodging Group.
Coleman might not be able to avoid the spotlight much longer, however. The AAN is the target of not one but two IRS complaints by watchdog organizations that claim the group is violating tax law by spending most of its money on politics.
Coleman has dismissed the complaints as baseless and politically motivated. But Democrats have sought to make hay out of secret political spending with votes on disclosure legislation and letters to the IRS.
The IRS has signaled growing interest in politically active nonprofits, most recently announcing that it would “consider proposed changes” in tax exempt rules. And recently, a federal three-judge panel agreed with Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) that groups running candidate-oriented issue ads on the eve of elections must disclose their donors.
All that may help explain why the American Action Network’s latest political campaign focuses on grass-roots, ground organizing, not broadcast ads. The group, which describes itself as a center-right “action tank,” will spend $10 million on a campaign to partner with local tea party and other allies on issues such as repealing the health care law and balancing the budget, said AAN President Brian Walsh, former political director of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
The AAN is also promoting its Hispanic Leadership Network, which will host a San Antonio, Texas, conference this month keynoted by Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R).
“We didn’t want to be simply a D.C.-centered operation,” Walsh said. “We wanted to find ways to go out into the country and start working with like-minded groups to build the grass-roots network that we think is necessary to compete with the left.”