Utah-based super PAC supports Paul — not Romney
Campaign • Satirical ads made in Provo get millions of views.
Published: February 21, 2012 01:59PM
Updated: February 20, 2012 10:22PM
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Paul Fraughton | The Salt Lake Tribune. Nate Jones, who plays the fake Mitt Romney, rehearses for his turn before the camera at the Rock Canyon Studios in Provo. The ad is one of the online campaign spots created by the super PAC Endorse Liberty, which is backing libertarian-minded GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul. Endorse Liberty's online satiric ads have been viewed 12 million times.

Washington • In a college dorm room in Provo, a young woman edits a satirical video with Utah actors portraying the Republican presidential candidates.

Click on Fake Mitt Romney or Fake Rick Santorum and you are transported to the future to hear what their State of the Union address would sound like.

This isn’t a class project or some kind of prank. It’s the work of Endorse Liberty, the biggest super PAC supporting Ron Paul. Founded in late December and headquartered in Utah, this group of political novices backed by a Silicon Valley billionaire has already spent $3.5 million pushing its online ads into early primary states where they have been viewed 12 million times.

“It is safe to say Endorse Liberty is a new force on the scene,” said Michael Beckel, who tracks super PAC spending for the Center for Public Integrity.

Super political action committees have been around for only two years, created in the aftermath of a Supreme Court ruling that allowed corporations, unions and individuals to give as much money as they want to groups acting independently of the candidates.

Now at least one super PAC is supporting every major presidential candidate, and a pattern has emerged. The groups tend to be led by political insiders with close ties to a candidate, and they spend their money almost exclusively on radio and television ads attacking others in the race.

That’s not Endorse Liberty. Its four founders have never worked for Paul. They haven’t even spoken with him. The only one who has ever been in his presence is Jeffrey Harmon, who briefly brushed his hand after a rally in Idaho on Thursday, while the Texas congressman walked through a crowd to his plane.

And instead of a traditional political ad, Endorse Liberty has specialized in satire, using cartoons and impersonators to take jabs at the other candidates. In one such spot, actor Nate Jones, who plays Fake Mitt Romney, said: “It is all about winning and electability and what makes you electable, telling people what they want to hear. I told an old fat woman I found her sexually attractive just to get her vote.”

Harmon, a 29-year-old Provo resident, was a Romney supporter early in the 2008 presidential race but found himself drawn by Paul’s brand of libertarianism. He donated a few hundred bucks at the time, but with the 2012 election approaching he wanted to get more involved.

Since then he helped launch a company called Orabrush and has worked to push its products with an aggressive Internet marketing campaign. And that gave him an idea.

“If I can sell a million tongue cleaners using YouTube,” Harmon said, “I can probably get a million people to vote for Ron Paul.”

He asked his colleague Abe Niederhauser to help create their own super PAC, but they knew they couldn’t do it on their own, so instead Harmon reached out to Paul’s official campaign and the pro-Paul group Revolution PAC. Neither group really caught his vision of an aggressive online presence, but one guy on those conference calls did.

Stephen Oskoui is a young online entrepreneur who left Silicon Valley to create an Internet marketing company called Smiley Media in Austin, Texas. He shared Harmon’s strategic view and, more important, he had contacts with some rich people who also want to see Paul in the White House.

What they didn’t have was a way to create a political entity, and the lawyers they reached out to said it would take at least six weeks to set up a super PAC. That was too long since by then the early primaries would be upon them.

Enter Ladd Christensen, who helped Jon Huntsman Sr. create Huntsman Chemical back in the 1970s and is now a big believer in social commerce. Christensen asked Harmon to speak at a conference last November because of his work with Orabrush, and the two started talking politics.

Christensen also was once a Romney supporter, and he has a soft spot for former presidential candidate Jon Huntsman Jr., too, but had concluded that Paul was the best candidate to fundamentally change the government.

“He is an individual who has not shifted positions even when ridiculed,” Christensen said. “I like his character.”

Christensen called a lawyer he knew who set up Endorse Liberty within a week, making Christensen’s Salt Lake City home the group’s legal headquarters.

Beckel, the super PAC expert, says Endorse Liberty is unusual for its lack of political connections and its online focus, which complement Paul’s outsider campaign focused on attracting young voters. But it differs with Paul’s campaign in one major way.

“Endorse Liberty isn’t fueled by small-dollar donors in the same way that the Ron Paul campaign is,” he said.

Oskoui and Harmon traveled to California, where they met with Peter Thiel, the billionaire founder of PayPal, and some other online gurus who are also libertarians. As of the end of January, Thiel has contributed $2.6 million to their cause. And Oskoui has given $470,000 of his own cash. Christensen said future reports will show his investment in the super PAC.

Niederhauser has managed their millions, while Harmon has focused his attention on their online ads, even taking a reduced role at Orabrush. They say most of the company’s employees are not Paul supporters.

“Jeffrey and I being Ron Paul supporters, we kind of drive our co-workers crazy,” Niederhauser said.

The group has rented out Utah County studios and booked actors through a talent agency to create a series of “Fake Politician” spots in which impersonators point out the political liabilities of Romney, Santorum and the other candidates. The group has also created videos espousing Paul’s goals of eliminating the Federal Reserve and ending the war in Afghanistan.

The spots are placed primarily on Google, Facebook and StumbleUpon, allowing them to target the ads to specific audiences in the primary states. They believe their efforts have boosted Paul’s cause, though their favorite candidate still lags behind the front-runners. Their new goal is to find a way to reach older voters online.

“We are big believers in online advertisers,” Niederhauser said. “And we believe the online space is not being used to its full potential.”

mcanham@sltrib.comTwitter: @mattcanham

Rally for Ron Paul

Endorse Liberty, the biggest super PAC supporting Ron Paul’s presidential run, has focused almost exclusively on Internet ads, but the group is throwing its first public event this week.

A political rally for Paul will take place Wednesday at the SCERA Center for the Arts in Orem, 745 S. State St., at 7 p.m.