The American Action Network and the American Action Forum are related groups that were founded to advance the fundraising and grassroots organizing for conservatives ahead of the 2010 U.S. midterm elections. The New York Times called them part of the “shadow” Republican party in 2011.
The groups, usually referred to together as the American Action Network, were created by high-profile Republicans to counterbalance left-leaning organizations like the Center for American Progress, which they felt had helped elevate Barack Obama to the presidency. The American Action Network is a 501(c)(4), which engages in public-facing media campaigns, while the American Action Forum is a 501(c)(3) think tank led by former Congressional Budget Officer Director Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who served from 2003 to 2005.
Their creation was also part of a larger project to rebrand the “tarnished” reputation of the Republican Party after the Iraq War and the 2008 financial crisis. The American Action Network’s early organizers specifically cited the possibilities created by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that allowed for unlimited corporate and individual donations as a motivating factor in their creation. Despite being founded in 2009, AAN was not rolled out formally until a month after the Citizens United decision.
The American Action Network is also the sister organization to the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC founded to ensure a GOP majority in the House of Representatives. Watchdog group OpenSecrets said American Action Network was “aligned with House Republican leadership” in 2022.
Since their inception, AAN and CLF have poured hundreds of millions to secure Republican victories:
Fred Malek, who passed in 2019, was a long-time Republican operative, multimillionaire, and founder of the American Action Network. Malek was a member of Richard Nixon’s and George H.W. Bush’s administrations. He also played a role in the campaigns of every Republican presidential nominee from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush. Malek ran the 1988 Republican National Convention and was the finance chair for the Republican Governors Association starting in 2012. He was the finance chairman and advisor to Sarah Palin during John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign and once co-owned the Texas Rangers with George W. Bush.
Malek once helped Richard Nixon investigate whether the Bureau of Labor Statistics was under the control of a “Jewish Cabal” by attempting to count all of the Jewish employees in the department. While Malek publicly denied his involvement, a leaked memo proved him to be lying. He was known as “the hatchet” during the Nixon administration for firing the president’s enemies. He also ordered investigations of anti-Nixon journalists and played a key role in Nixons’ “Responsiveness Program,” which aimed to direct federal resources to his re-election campaign.
In 2004, Malek’s investment firm, Thayer Capital Partners, was forced to pay a $250,000 SEC fine for failing to disclose donations to a state senator who performed “no meaningful work” for the firm. Malek’s role in Nixon’s “Jewish Cabal” investigation and his SEC fine proved controversial during the rise of American Action Network.
Doug Holtz-Eakin is an economist who served as Senior Staff Economist to George H.W. Bush’s Council Of Economic Advisors and as the senior policy advisor to John McCain’s (R-AZ) 2008 presidential campaign. He has served as president of the American Action Forum since 2010. As president of AAF, he repeatedly attacked the Affordable Care Act.
Dan Conston is the president of American Action Network and its sister organization Congressional Leadership Fund and has served in those positions since 2019. He previously served as the communications director and director of independent expenditures for both groups at various points.
Prior to becoming president at AAN and CLF, Conston served as communications director to former chief deputy whip Rep. Peter Roskam (R-IL) and launched the America Patriots PAC which supported Reps. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX) and Mike Waltz (R-FL) in the 2018 election cycle. He also held press roles for Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS), and for the 2008 McCain-Palin campaign.
According to his official AAN bio, Conston turned CLF into “the largest House super PAC in history in 2020, spending $165 million across 54 congressional races. With CLF’s help, House Republicans beat all the odds by flipping 15 seats and re-electing every single incumbent as CLF recorded an unprecedented 82% ROI.”
Norm Coleman served as the first CEO of AAN and is presently its chair. Coleman served as a U.S. Senator representing Minnesota from 2003 to 2009 and joined the lobbying firm Hogan Lovells as a senior government advisor in 2011. As a lobbyist, he has represented pharmaceutical company Alvogen, Essential Health, healthcare group Medica, GE Aviation, fertilizer company Intrepid Potash, investment firm Nuveen, T-Mobile, and numerous energy companies such as Kinder Morgan, LG Energy Solution, Louisiana Energy Services, North American Interpipe, and Xcel Energy.
Other notable founding members of American Action Network include former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, former Republican Party chair Ed Gillespie, Home Depot founder and GOP megadonor Ken Langone, and former George W. Bush administration and Goldman Sachs official Robert Steel.
One of the early donors to the American Action Network and Home Depot founder, Ken Langone, said the organizations were “not going to go near the social issues” in 2010. Historically, the organizations have opposed spending on social programs such as the Affordable Care Act and the Green New Deal, tax hikes, and business regulatory bodies such as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. In the last case, AAF ran ads claiming that the CFPB was “designed to interfere with your personal financial decisions.”
The American Action Network poured more than $26 million into the 2010 midterm elections, causing a profound shift in the American political landscape ushering in the rise of the Tea Party Movement, which political analysts have characterized as a conservative backlash to the election of Barack Obama. The Tea Party positioned itself as a populist movement seeking libertarian solutions in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. However, reporting from outlets such as the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, and Rolling Stone have noted the influence of well-funded conservative groups, such as FreedomWorks, in the movement’s exponential growth.
In the early 2010s, when Tea Party insurgents and establishment Republicans were frequently embroiled in highly-contested primaries, American Action Network allies such as Karl Rove, of the group American Crossroads – which shared office space with AAN, wanted to push for more moderate candidates. In the mid-2010s AAN backed candidates more moderate on immigration or affiliated with former Republican Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), who was strongly associated with AAN’s sister PAC, Congressional Leadership Fund. By 2015, however, AAN ran a $3 million campaign to support former Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) and the House Freedom Caucus, which represents the furthest-right members of the House of Representatives–many of whom were affiliated with the Tea Party.
Political commentators such as the director of political studies at the Niskanen Center Geoffrey Kabaservice have argued that the influence of tea party populism set the stage for Trump and the MAGA politics of the late 2010s and 2020s, which dramatically pushed the GOP to the right.
The American Action Network promoted what was called the “gang of eight” immigration reform bill in 2013, which was a bipartisan effort that came in response to then-President Obama’s own immigration reform efforts. The “gang of eight” bill called for a $4.5 billion “security and fencing fund to monitor ‘high-risk’ areas along the U.S.-Mexico border” alongside offering a potential path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in addition to increased opportunities for skilled-worker visas. The effort was seen as necessary to secure Republican inroads with Latino voters by party insiders prior to the election of Donald Trump in 2016.
Shortly after AAN’s outsized impact on the 2010 midterms, multiple watchdog groups including Democracy 21, The Campaign Legal Center, and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington raised questions about AAN’s tax status. Under AAN’s tax status, the organization could only spend less than 50% of its funding on electoral ads. However, these watchdog groups argued that AAN’s supposedly non-election-related advertisements, which focused on issues rather than specific candidates, were meant to impact elections due to their “timing, nature, and extent.” CREW even filed an IRS complaint against American Action Network for alleged 501(c)(4) violations in 2011.
Additionally, concerns about AAN were raised to the FEC numerous times, and FEC commissioners deadlocked along party lines 3-3 in 2014, refusing to rule on whether American Action Network had violated federal campaign finance laws . They did so again, on the same party-line vote, in 2016 after a federal judge ordered the Commission to reevaluate the question. In 2022, CREW sued the FEC for failure to act on the allegations from the previous complaints against American Action Network
The American Action Network is best known for its aggressive spending on political media campaigns – at one point spending nearly 40% of its budget on “direct or indirect campaign political campaign activities.” Ads by American Action Network have been called “grossly misleading” by former Republicans and called misleading by political fact-checkers and media watchdogs.
Listed below are some notable campaigns run by AAN:
The American Action Network is not required to disclose its donors, but various investigations and reports since its inception have identified numerous corporate, industry, and other Republican groups as key sources of its funding.
Congressional Leadership Fund, the sister organization of American Action Network, is a Super PAC devoted to electing GOP members of the U.S. House of Representatives. CLF was originally associated with former Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner, but has subsequently been associated with former Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and is currently affiliated with GOP House leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA). American Action Network President Dan Conston is also the president of CLF and has served in those positions since 2019.
CLF is one of the dominant super PACs in the American political landscape. It was the 2nd highest outside spender in the 2022 election cycle, the 3rd highest in the 2020 election cycle, and the 2nd highest in the 2018 election cycle according to watchdog OpenSecrets. Since its inception, it has spent over $576 million working to elect House Republicans. As of November 7, 2022, it has spent over $226.7 million in the 2022 election cycle alone.
[Open Secrets, Accessed 11/07/22]
Major donors to CLF include: the late conservative megadonor and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam Adelson, industrial fortune heir Timothy Mellon, Citadel CEO and conservative megadonor Ken Griffin, Chevron, Microsoft, Koch Industries, Valero Energy, airline trade group Airlines for America, private prison firm GEO Group, and major conservative donor Patrick Ryan.
CLF has been criticized for running inflammatory, misleading, and offensive political advertisements.
American Crossroads is a powerful conservative super PAC that has been called the “shadow Republican National Committee” according to Open Secrets. The organization sourced nearly all its early funding from a handful of conservative billionaires. The organization is closely tied to conservative strategist and George W. Bush Senior Advisor Karl Rove. A 2010 Time article claimed that American Crossroads and American Action Network shared office space. According to Open Secrets, American crossroads spent nearly $80 million to influence the 2020 election cycle.
American Crossroads has an affiliated 501(c)(4), Crossroads GPS, that “aggressively pioneered in a new form of political engagement by nonprofit groups sanctioned by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.” It took the IRS over five years to approve Crossroads GPS 501(c)(4) tax status due to its large volume of spending on political causes. In 2015, American Crossroads established another nonprofit, One Nation, to act as its 501(c)(4) arm.