Who were the RINO Hunters?
A complex network of political groups attacked Republicans in the midterms’ final days. Was it a secret effort by Democrats?
In the final week of the midterm elections, an opaque network of organizations spent several hundred thousand dollars attacking Republican down-ballot candidates from the Right. The organizations’ ads used language like “ballot mules,” “illegals,” and “globalists,” which is typical messaging deployed by the far-right. In nearly every race, the candidates targeted by the network’s attacks lost - often by narrow margins.
To date, it remains unclear who exactly was behind these campaigns, but there is some evidence the network has direct ties to Democratic operatives and firms. I’ll share what I’ve found below, but first…
By the numbers
FWIW, here were the top-spending political advertisers on Facebook + Instagram last week:
The top-spending political advertiser on Facebook + Instagram last week was unsurprisingly Raphael Warnock, who is using every tactic imaginable to reach voters ahead of next Tuesday’s runoff election. While Warnock spent nearly $400k on these ads last week, Herschel Walker dropped just around $50,000.
Meanwhile, here were the top political advertisers on Google platforms last week, including YouTube:
Similarly, Democrats continue to far outspend Republicans in the Georgia Senate race on Google and YouTube. Warnock and Senate Majority PAC’s “Georgia Honor” have been top advertisers on the platform since Election day on November 8th.
Political campaigns and organizations in the U.S. have spent over $10.3 million on Snapchat ads in 2022. That’s a major increase over 2019, but way down from 2020. Here are the top political advertisers on Snapchat so far this year:
From around the internet
One of the first major candidates to use TikTok this cycle was Rep. Val Demings, who ran against Marco Rubio for U.S. Senate in Florida. I spoke with Demings’ Digital Director Cayana Mackey about her team’s digital program, use of TikTok, and how social media changed politics in 2022. Read the interview in Campaigner >>
Speaking of TikTok, the Cooperative Impact Lab published learnings from a TikTok pilot they ran with several progressive nonprofit groups this year. Read about it here >>
Democratic data expert Tom Bonier has begun updating early vote counts in the Georgia Runoff elections. You can find his thread + dashboard here >>
There are over 100 GOTV events being held across Georgia from now through Tuesday’s runoff election, according to Democrats’ events platform, Mobilize. Check out the full list here + volunteer for a virtual (or in-person) shift>>
Donald Trump’s name and image have been the single biggest fundraising draw for Republican committees and candidates over the past 2 years. Now that he has officially declared his presidential candidacy for 2024, Republican online fundraisers are facing a major reckoning.
Who were the RINO Hunters?
In the final week of the midterm elections, an opaque network of organizations spent several hundred thousand dollars attacking Republican down-ballot candidates from the Right. In Wisconsin’s gubernatorial race, they urged Republicans to vote for a third-party candidate who was no longer running. In various state legislative races, their ads claimed Republicans were tied to “ballot mule” schemes, “globalist elites,” “illegals,” and were insufficiently “MAGA.” In each instance, these groups served the purpose of spoiling tight elections in favor of Democrats, and records show the network has ties to several Democratic firms and operatives.
“RINO Hunters Wisconsin”
On November 7th - the day before Election Day - Jason Calvi at FOX 6 Milwaukee reported on questionable campaign tactics by a far-right group called “RINO Hunters Wisconsin.” The tactics were also previously mentioned in several right-leaning political blogs in the state. RINO Hunters Wisconsin was sending text messages and mailers, in addition to running digital advertising, to boost an independent conservative candidate in the Wisconsin Governor’s race. The organization spent at least $680,000 doing so.
Here’s the catch: that candidate, Joan Ellis Beglinger, had already dropped out of the race two months prior and endorsed Republican nominee Tim Michels.
Whoever was running these pro-Beglinger ads had to know that she was no longer a candidate - and that their efforts could only serve the purpose of hurting Republican Tim Michels in his bid to unseat Democratic Gov. Tony Evers. On its state campaign finance filings, the group reported its expenditures as opposing Republican candidate Tim Michels - not in support of Beglinger.
Per the filings, the “RINO Hunters” group has financial ties to a DC-based organization called the Liberty Group. Complicating the matter further was the fact that the same Liberty Group had given money to another organization in the state called “Patriots for Wisconsin.”
“Patriots for Wisconsin”
According to a September 2022 campaign finance filing, Patriots for Wisconsin paid a Democratic firm, AL Media, and an LLC named Path to Victory to shore up support for a moderate Republican in a state house primary. Patriots also paid liberal research group Citizen Strong for “general operating expenses.”
AL Media did not respond to FWIW’s request for comment. A person formerly affiliated with Path to Victory told FWIW that the LLC “belongs to his old employer,” another Democratic firm. John Burton, founder of Citizen Strong, did not respond to FWIW’s request for comment.
An organization named Patriots for Wisconsin did run some anti-“RINO” Facebook ads earlier this year, but its ads and barebones website have since been taken down.
Wisconsin RINO Hunters, The Liberty Group, and Patriots for Wisconsin all share the same address and DC-based treasurer - a GOP compliance consultant named Mike McCauley. McCauley did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
This network wasn’t only active in Wisconsin - FWIW found that the opaque group ran digital advertising operations in at least three other states: Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Arizona.
With the exception of targeting Michels in Wisconsin, the Liberty Group network of organizations seemed to primarily attack Republican state legislative candidates running in competitive districts. This election cycle, majorities in several key state legislative chambers were up for grabs, with Democrats making large gains.
In Pennsylvania, “RINO Hunters PA” spent $16,134 on Facebook advertising from October 30th to November 7th. It received at least $125,000 from Liberty Group in the final week of the election. The group’s ads slammed six Republican candidates in must-win state house races as being insufficiently conservative, using language like “ballot mules,” “traitors,” “illegals,” and “leftists”:
Five of the six Republicans the group attacked lost their races on November 8th.
“RINO Hunters PA” campaign finance filings list the organization’s Chairman as George Gossett Jr., a lawyer in Philadelphia. He has been active in local Democratic politics, serving as a campaign chairman for a local Democrat in 2019, making a personal donation to the PA House Dems leader in 2017, and donating to another Democratic state representative in 2012. FWIW reached out to Gossett Jr. for comment but has not received a response.
In Michigan, the group Rino Hunters MI sought to play a similar spoiler role against at least one Republican State Senate candidate in a competitive district. Their ads similarly used language casting doubt on the 2020 election results.
Although those entities in the midwest attempted to attack Republicans as insufficiently partisan, in Arizona, the group took a different strategy - they attacked a Republican state legislative candidate with a background in law enforcement on the issue of police brutality.
Liberty Group’s AZ affiliate Brighter Future AZ, has, like the others, deleted its website since Election Day, but a version of it still exists in the internet archive. The generic language on the site does not mirror far-right messaging, however - it claims the group supports “freedom over our bodies” and opposes “unrelenting partisanship.” Its listed address again matches that of DC-based McCauley and Associates.
It is relatively uncommon for a Facebook advertiser to have their page unpublished or deleted, but that is what happened to each of these entities' pages.
Most of these organizations’ Facebook ads were launched on October 30th - right before the platform’s election week ad ban went into place - and ran through November 7th. Each affiliated Facebook page was then taken down and their ads were marked as policy violations around that time, although not until after the group was able to spend several hundred thousand dollars targeting voters.
Bringing a gun to a knife fight
Without confirmation from the individuals involved or more financial disclosures, I can’t confidently say who created these entities or why. There remains a possibility that some far-right donor had a grudge against these candidates, and enlisted a few Democrats to assist in taking them down.
However, as I have written for several months, while Republicans and their allies pulled back from digital campaigning in 2022, Democrats invested in a host of innovative online tactics and strategies to combat anti-democratic extremists across the country. If my theory about this “RINO Hunter” network is correct and Democrats are indeed behind these efforts, this would probably be the most sophisticated, head-spinning example of that to date.
That’s it for FWIW this week! If you enjoyed reading this issue, give it a share on Twitter.