The new ad released this week is grim, from start to finish. “Senator McConnell, I did my duty. But after 30 years in Washington, you failed to do yours,” says Vietnam War Veteran Charles Erwin, after slowly walking with a cane towards the camera as his current illnesses flash on the screen: diabetes, cancer, heart disease, stroke.
The alleged failure by Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell is his decision to oppose a $21 billion Department of Veteran’s Affairs reform bill in favor of the $16.3 billion bill that eventually passed this summer. And group paying for the ad, VoteVets, claims to have only the most noble of intentions—”to ensure that troops abroad have what they need to complete their missions, and receive the care they deserve when they get home.”
But McConnell has cried foul. Much of the board of VoteVets is made up of Democratic donors and strategists, people like former Bill Clinton personal aide Douglas Band and former Clinton White House adviser Elaine Kamarck, who have only tangential ties to military service. And the public records that are available show that the group has a history of taking money from interests groups far afield of veterans issues to pay for political attacks against Republican candidates under the cover of defending those who have served the nation in wartime.
Distinguishing raw political attacks from traditional veterans advocacy has long been a conundrum for American voters. Most famously, Republican donors banded together to fund Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in 2004, a group that attempted to savage Democratic candidate John Kerry’s military service based on sometimes spurious claims. But the tactic has only increased since then. This cycle, in addition to VoteVets.org, a conservative group called Concerned Veterans of America has been attacking Democratic candidates in contested races with costly advertising. That group is run by veteran Pete Hegseth, a former finance chair for the Minnesota Republican Party and one-time Republican Senate candidate, and has been tied by ProPublica through tax forms to groups funded by conservative donors Charles and David Koch. “Under her watch, things got worse,” claims a recent Concerned Veterans television spot that ties Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina to the recent scandals at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
VoteVets received almost $4 million from environmental groups in 2010, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign efforts. That same year, the organization spent $3.2 million on ads both promoting candidates and a climate change bill. In 2013, VoteVets received $420,000 from the progressive PAC America Votes. And according to Politico, environmental activist Tom Steyer’s climate action PAC NextGEN gave $250,000 to VoteVets this August. As a registered 501(c )4 organization, VoteVets is not legally required to disclose its donors making it hard for voters in states where their ads appear to know just who supports them. So far in 2014, VoteVets ads have appeared in Montana, Colorado, Michigan, Alaska, Massachusetts, Iowa, and Hawaii. Jon Soltz, an Iraq war veteran who runs the group, declined to tell TIME who paid for the $300,000 ad buy in Kentucky this wake, though he said his group’s primary concern is “making sure our nation’s veterans are taken care of.”
McConnell’s campaign dismisses the group as a front “funded by environmental activists with a political agenda that is decisively anti-Kentucky,” as McConnell campaign spokesperson Allison Moore said in a statement. “Of course a liberal Obama advocacy group that specializes in misleading ads has descended into Kentucky on behalf of Alison Lundergan Grimes,” she said.
By tradition, the larger established veterans advocacy groups refuse to engage in electoral politics. Marty Goley, the Department of Kentucky Commander for the American Legion wouldn’t get into the politics of the ad, but said the VA system in Kentucky is “strong.” “Even though there may be some slight access issues we have a good program in Kentucky,” Goley told TIME. “I’ve been a veteran that needed health care. The care I received at the VA in Kentucky was excellent.”
The national chapter of the American Legion, one of the nation’s largest veterans groups, would not comment on the ad or the back-and-forth in Kentucky.