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PA-12: Will GOP Choose Shady Fundraiser William Russell For Special Election?

The death of Rep. Jack Murtha means that a special election, probably set for May 18th, the day of Pennsylvania’s state primary, will ensue. The way it works in Pennsylvania is the state party committees select a candidate for the special election, and then they face off. Lots of names have been floated on both sides as contenders for the seat, which is in a swing district (R+1 according to the latest Cook PVI). On the Democratic side, former Lt. Governor Mark Singel and longtime state Senator John Wozniak look to be the major possible candidates. Republicans are looking at two candidates who were already setting up to face Murtha in the general election:

A Republican source in Pennsylvania said that potential GOP candidates for the special election include the two candidates who were already in the race, businessman Tim Burns and 2008 nominee William Russell, as well as a potential new candidate in state Rep. David Reed.

In a quick-strike election, Republicans may want to choose someone with name recognition, fundraising potential and a war chest in place. That would appear to point to Russell, a former Army Lt. Colonel who got 42% of the vote against Murtha in 2008. So far in this cycle, Russell has raised eye-popping $2.8 million dollars. However, if you look closer at his FEC statement, he only has $211,000 in cash on hand, after spending over $800,000 just in the last three months of last year.

How is that possible? How do you even spend that much money on campaign expenses a year before the election?

The answer is simple if you recognize that Russell is a BMW Direct client. This article about Russell and BMW is from 2008, but it still applies:

As we reported in July, Russell is a client of BMW Direct. That’s the Republican consulting firm whose business model appears to consist of tapping national lists of GOP donors to raise a lot of money, via direct-mail appeals, for long-shot candidates (which is exactly what Russell was before Murtha’s gaffe). Then, BMW charges the candidate nearly the sum total of what it raised, for expenses related to the fundraising effort itself.

For instance, we noted in July, based on FEC filings, that Russell had raised $669,534 from April through June. That’s an impressive amount — until you consider that, after paying expenses to BMW and its various affiliates, Russell came out only $27,431 ahead.

That tracks with what we’ve seen this cycle, and let’s be very clear – this is essentially thievery. National donors give their money to what they think are credible Republican candidates running across the country. But they’re actually doing nothing but funding BMW Direct, which takes a huge cut of the donations. In one case, donors gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to a challenger to Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) even after the candidate dropped out of the race. It’s purely a scam – Republican operatives screwing over their donor base and getting rich off it.

The question then becomes: will the Republican Party in Pennsylvania run this same candidate, affiliated with the thieves at BMW Direct, in a special election to capture the Murtha seat? Russell underperformed expectations in 2008, probably because he didn’t have any money after paying off BMW. If he became the candidate in PA-12 and continued to use BMW for fundraising efforts, there’s every expectation that BMW, not Russell, would continue to reap the benefits.

Should Republicans pick Russell as their candidate, expect a lot more stories about all the shady fundraising.

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David Dayen

David Dayen