WASHINGTON — A Republican group tied to hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer plans to spend at least $2 million between now and Election Day to boost congressional candidates who share its views in favor of gay rights.
American Unity's midterm push comes after a string of recent victories, including little-noticed state contests in Illinois, Nevada, Minnesota and Hawaii, where it helped Republican candidates — vulnerable over gay-marriage votes — survive primary challenges.
The group has drawn up plans to back seven congressional candidates ahead of November's elections and could add more to the roster, said Jeff Cook-McCormac, a senior adviser to American Unity PAC and its policy arm, American Unity Fund. They include incumbents such as Pennsylvania Rep. Charlie Dent, a moderate Republican who announced his support for gay marriage in May and Richard Tisei, an openly gay Republican making his second bid for a U.S. House seat in Massachusetts.
The super PAC already has spent $700,000 in a congressional primary this year to help Republican Rep. Richard Hanna beat back a Tea Party-backed challenger in upstate New York. Hanna, a two-term incumbent, backs a federal bill to ban workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation.
"For many years, there's been a huge fear from Republican elected officials that if they showed courage on issues like this, would they be able to survive politically?" Cook-McCormac said.
"What American Unity PAC is committed to doing is ensuring that as these courageous elected officials follow their conscience and do the right thing, that there is a political network in place that's there to defend them."
In all, the group has raised nearly $9 million through its three branches — a super PAC, the tax-exempt arm focused on policy issues and a third group that organizes donors to support candidates.
Singer, the founder of Elliott Management and a leading force in Republican efforts to legalize gay marriage, is the largest donor to the American Unity super PAC at nearly $2 million, federal records show. Another billionaire, Boston investment manager Seth Klarman, has donated $ 1 million.
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American Unity's strategy varies by contest. In Illinois and Minnesota this year, it helped launch state-focused super PACs to back like-minded Republicans in primaries. In other states, it has encouraged its network of donors to send campaign checks directly to at-risk candidates.
The effort has paid off. Some examples:
• An affiliated super PAC, Freedom Minnesota, spent more than $125,000 help Minnesota state Rep. Jenifer Loon, the No. 2 Republican in the Minnesota House, survive a primary challenge last week that was focused on her May 2013 vote to legalize gay marriage.
• In Hawaii and Nevada, American Unity raised money on behalf of its favored candidates, including Hawaii Rep. Cynthia Thielen. Earlier this month, Thielen, the only Republican in the state legislature to vote for the state's same-sex marriage law, beat back a challenge from Joan Hood, a Pentecostal pastor.
Garret Hashimoto, state chairman of the Hawaii Christian Coalition, said it was hard for a political newcomer like Hood and her supporters to compete financially. "It showed the importance of that race for the gay community," he said.
• In Illinois, its affiliated Illinois Unity PAC spent $155,000 to help turn out the vote for two Republicans, state Reps. Ed Sullivan and Ron Sandack. The groups also helped raise money for Rep. Tom Cross' primary bid for state treasurer.
The lawmakers were the only three Republicans in the Illinois House to back the state's same-sex marriage measure last November. All three prevailed in the March primary — Sandack by only 153 votes.
Sandack said the group's mailings that landed in his suburban Chicago district didn't mention the gay-rights vote but offered "good publicity about my fiscal conservatism and the good-government policies I champion, issues that could have been drowned out."
He said he doesn't regret his vote on same-sex marriage, although it nearly cost him his seat.
"My party needs to catch up and focus on things like small government, liberty and freedom and get past these issues so we can attract everybody," he said. "We've got to broaden our base."
The super PAC's biggest investment this year: protecting Hanna, who is seeking re-election in a swing district. Its ads in the GOP primary didn't mention gay marriage despite a "no" vote by his rival, New York Assemblywoman Claudia Tenney, on a measure that legalized gay marriage in the state. Instead, the ads cast her as weak on taxes and employment.
"It was an attempt to distort and manipulate the public," Tenney said of American Unity's campaign. "At no point, did they discuss their agenda in any of the ads."
Cook-McCormac said the group focuses on issues that matter to voters.
"We're not trying to hide who we are," he said. "There's no question that we are an organization that's largely funded by Republican business leaders who believe passionately that freedom means freedom for everyone. But they are also strong believers in economic freedom."
"In some ways, it's insulting to think that because someone supports gay rights that they can't talk about other issues, too," Cook-McCormac added. "Gay and lesbian Americans and the people who care about them live in the same economy as the rest of us."