Mitt Romney has disavowed a plan by an outside PAC to spend $10 million on an anti-Obama campaign focused on the president’s controversial former pastor, Jeremiah Wright. But a prominent Republican consultant said to be involved in the effort has worked closely in the past with a top Romney campaign aide.
According to the proposal, revealed by the New York Times today, the plan to tie Obama to Wright has been discussed “in highly confidential terms” with a list of several conservative operatives. “All are ready to jump into action upon plan approval,” the proposal says.
One person listed as a potential team member is Whit Ayres, who would be responsible for generating “earned media” – that is, news coverage – for the campaign. Ayres runs North Star Opinion Research, a public opinion research firm whose heavyweight list of corporate clients has included outfits like PhRMA, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and AT&T.
He also appears to be tight with Ed Gillespie, a senior adviser to Romney’s campaign. In 2009, Ayres and Gillespie – a former RNC chair, Bush White House official, and Washington lobbyist – together co-founded the conservative advocacy group Resurgent Republic, and, according to the group's website, served together on its board until last month, when Gillespie left to sign on with the Romney camp. The two men have also teamed up on op-ed pieces and media appearances.
Despite the past ties between Ayres and Gillespie, there's no evidence whatsoever that Gillespie or the Romney campaign had any knowledge of the Super PAC's plan -- indeed, such co-ordination would be illegal, a point Gillespie himself made today to The Daily Beast. But if nothing else, the history between the two men underlines that those behind the Wright plan are far from fringe players in Republican circles.
Ayres told Lean Forward Thursday that he wasn’t involved with developing the proposal, but referred further questions to Brian Nick, a spokesman for Strategic Perception, a political advertising firm whose logo appears on the proposal. Nick, who is also listed in the proposal as a potential team member, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Ayres in the past has sounded enthusiastic on the idea of pushing the Wright controversy. In 2008, several months after the Jeremiah Wright controversy first exploded, he continued to raise the issue at a time when it no longer dominated the airwaves.
"Jeremiah Wright is not going away," Ayres told CNN in May of that year, recounting focus group research his firm had conducted. "There are an awful lot of people, when you just ask, 'What do you think of when you think of Barack Obama?' who bring up Jeremiah Wright's name. They bring up the anti-Americanism. They wonder why it took him so long to separate himself from him. Jeremiah Wright is an albatross around Barack Obama's neck that he's going to have to carry all the way to the election."
Ayres added that white blue-collar voters “don't believe that Barack Obama has the same cultural outlook on the world and on America that they do. They know that, and they don't like it."
Earlier Thursday, Romney told a conservative website he doesn’t support the proposed campaign. “I repudiate the effort by that PAC to promote an ad strategy of the nature they’ve described,” he said.
And the billionaire backer of the PAC, Joe Ricketts, also has disavowed the idea, releasing a statement saying it "reflects an approach to politics that Mr. Ricketts rejects."