LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The most mysterious force in Kentucky’s pivotal U.S. Senate race is a ghost that dwells in a hole in a wall.
Hunt for the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition, and one finds no grassroots army, no canvassing operation, no office or headquarters at all — just a scuffed U.S. Postal Service box nestled inside a suburban shopping plaza about 10 miles from downtown Louisville.
About the only thing nearby that smacks of politics is an adjacent pop-up Halloween costume store. There, among monsters, ghouls and evil clowns, a vinyl President Barack Obama mask sells for $24.99 — the “scariest one of them all,” one shopper mused.
Corporeal or not, the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition has nevertheless capitalized on such anti-Obama sentiment, and the freedom to largely operate with anonymity, to haunt Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes in her increasingly unlikely bid to unseat incumbent Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
About one in every seven of TV ads in Kentucky’s Senate race — about 12,000 of the more than 79,000 ads that have aired through Monday — has been sponsored by Kentucky Opportunity Coalition, which operates as a “social welfare” nonprofit organization that, by law, is prohibited from making the influencing of elections its primary purpose.
Only the McConnell and Grimes campaigns themselves have aired more TV ads during what’s become one of the nation’s most contentious — and most costly — electoral battles, according to a Center for Public Integrity review of data provided by Kantar Media/CMAG, an advertising tracking company.
No other group has had a larger footprint in Kentucky’s U.S. Senate race. In fact, the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition has aired about twice as many TV ads than the next most prolific player in the contest, a pro-Grimes super PAC called Senate Majority PAC, run by allies of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. And the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition has aired more spots than all other pro-McConnell groups combined.
Despite having effectively no physical presence, the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition now ranks among the largest social welfare nonprofits in Kentucky — bringing in more money, according to Internal Revenue Service records, than some of Kentucky’s more high-profile nonprofits, such as the Kentucky School Boards Association and the Kentucky Derby Festival, the group behind two weeks’ worth of events surrounding the Kentucky Derby.
Thank, in part, the loosened rules on corporate electioneering following the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision for Kentucky Opportunity Coalition’s unexpected rise. Certain types of donor-shielding nonprofit corporations may now raise unlimited funds to advocate for and against federal political candidates, not only in Kentucky, but in any race.
More acutely, though, thank a development akin to a corporate takeover for the group’s sudden prominence — the addition, last year, of a former top McConnell aide who previously worked in the White House with Republican strategist Karl Rove. Until then, the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition didn't do much of anything.
That man: Scott Jennings.