It appears that Kentucky’s US Senate race will continue to be filled with recordings of off-the-record conversations that were not intended for public consumption.
First was the recording of a supposedly private conversation between Senator Mitch McConnell and close advisers at his campaign headquarters in April of last year, in which they discussed using their opposition research against actress Ashley Judd, who was considering a Senate run. The culprits, a hapless Democratic PAC opposed to McConnell, anonymously leaked the recording to Mother Jones, before being outed by WFPL in Louisville. McConnell’s campaign referred to this as “Gestapo tactics,” and tried to imply that Alison Lundergan Grimes or even President Obama had put them up to it.
Last fall, a hot mic caught McConnell and Senator Rand Paul discussing the government shutdown in between television interviews, with Paul telling McConnell, “I think we can win this.”
Two weeks ago it was Alison Lundergan Grimes’ turn to be caught on audio at a private DC fundraiser with Senate majority leader Harry Reid. Weeks earlier, Grimes vowed to use the occasion to tell Reid that she is strongly opposed to new EPA regulations to cut carbon emissions from power plants, which she says will hurt Kentuckians. However, an audio recording of the speech was later anonymously leaked to Politico, revealing that she did not mention coal at all, which McConnell’s campaign claimed was Grimes breaking a promise and further evidence that she will be beholden to Democratic leaders who aren’t looking out for coal. Grimes’s campaign said she did privately relay that message to Reid before the fundraiser, and the entire kerfuffle was much ado about nothing. Kentucky Opportunity Coalition, a Super PAC working to elect McConnell, came out with a new TV ad today hitting Grimes over the audio from the fundraiser, calling her “two-faced.”
While the Politico piece described the anonymous recorder of the audio as a “source” who is “a Washington consultant,” a Democratic operative who attended the fundraiser tells me that all available evidence points to Richard Hohlt, a super-insider DC consultant and lobbyist who worked for three Republican presidents and is a huge Republican donor—and a personal friend of McConnell.
The Democratic operative tells me that there was confusion at the event about whether Hohlt had RSVPed, though he paid $500 at the door to enter. The source also says that the audio of the recording—which features Grimes moving around the room to meet donors before speaking—was taken from the part of the room where Hohlt was sitting.
A recent New York Times profile of McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao, featured a quote from Hohlt, who was described as “a friend of the couple.” Hohlt’s friendship with McConnell also includes a large amount of contributions to his Senate campaigns, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Republican Party of Kentucky and a long list of other Republican candidates and committees.
Over the last two decades, Hohlt and his wife have given over 600 contributions to Republican candidates, PACs and committees, totaling almost $2 million.* A search of FEC reports shows that they only contributed to seven Democratic candidates over that time, totaling well under 1 percent of their total contributions. Since their contribution to Representative John Dingel (D-MI) in May of 2007, Hohlt and his wife have made nearly 300 contributions totaling $774,900, exclusively to Republicans.
Hohlt has heavily donated to McConnell, as well. He and his wife have given $13,400 to McConnell’s campaigns, with his wife giving McConnell the full $5,200 maximum allowed for his current race, and Hohlt just $100 shy of that amount. He and his wife have combined to give McConnell’s Bluegrass Committee $10,000, including $5,000 after McConnell’s last election in 2008. The Hohlts also donated $20,000 to the Republican Party of Kentucky on one day in March of last year, the same month they combined to contribute $3,200 to McConnell’s Senate campaign. The Hohlts have also contributed $120,300 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, including $91,600 since McConnell was last elected.
A 2009 New York Times profile of Hohlt also reveals this nugget:
Hohlt is also a founding member of an informal Washington salon, known as the Off-the-Record Club, where prominent Republicans, including Vin Weber and Karl Rove, gather for dinner to trade strategy. Mr. Hohlt is also a well-known background source for Washington journalists.
Presented with this evidence, it doesn’t seem likely that Hohlt, out of the blue, decided one day to break his seven-year drought of donating to a Democrat—a Democrat who just happened to be running against his good friend Mitch McConnell.
However, that’s exactly what Hohlt told me in an e-mail. Though he didn’t reply to a call and e-mail last week, Hohlt quickly replied to my e-mail yesterday describing what I was writing, conceding that he attended the Grimes fundraiser and donated to her, but denying that he recorded her speech. Hohlt tells me that he called the person who sent him an invitation the night before the fundraiser, which he called a “good event.”
Asked why he would contribute to Grimes—considering his seven years of exclusive Republican support and his friendship with McConnell—Hohlt didn’t elaborate, but said he’s also given to Senator Mark Warner (D-VA). No record of that contribution exists in FEC records, but it could have happened in the current quarter. However, the Hohlts’ last contribution on record is $7,800 to Ed Gillespie—Warner’s Republican opponent.
Grimes’s campaign declined to comment to me for this story, the reason for which I’m guessing is that they either want the fundraiser audio story to go away, or embarrassment for letting Hohlt in.
Another interesting question—if Hohlt did in fact make the recording and leak it to Politico—is if anyone put Hohlt up to it. Like, say, a personal friend who would stand to benefit from a recording of Grimes saying something embarrassing at a private fundraiser that could damage her campaign for the Senate? I’m trying hard, but nobody’s coming to mind…
Anyway, it surely couldn’t have been orchestrated by anyone involved with McConnell and his campaign—after all, they consider such behavior “Gestapo tactics.” Although, it might be worth asking them, anyway.
*A prior version of this story understated the contributions to McConnell.