Tolbert: Huckabee 2016 Staffing Up His Non-Profit Organization (UPDATED)

by Jason Tolbert ([email protected]) 74 views 

With the 2014 election a firm week behind us, it is time to turn to obsessive rumors over who will run for President in 2016.

This early out it is easy to make accurate predictions – remember that epic showdown in 2008 between Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani? Oh yeah. Nevermind.

But alas, blogs are the place for such early speculation and a bit of tea leaves are being read on the favorite politician with which we here at The Tolbert Report have formed quite the love-hate relationship.  Tom Hamburger and Robert Costa with The Washington Post has a story up on Wednesday that looks at Huckabee’s efforts to begin organizing for a possible 2016 Presidential run.

Some of the signs are the standard fare for Huckabee. He has yet another new book coming out called “God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy.”  This is one of his usual money-making venues that rolls out every couple of years. He is also taking a group of pastors from early primary states on a overseas tour called the “Reagan, Thatcher, Pope John Paul II tour.”  Again, leading tour groups are a common money-making venue for the Huckabee empire.

But perhaps the surest sign revealed in the article is the revitalization of his non-profit – a public policy group organized  under IRS code 501c(4).  It is actually, technically not a new group, as the article states, but a rebranding of his failed “Vertical Politics Institute” that he formed back in 2008.  The Institute never really took off with limited activity and funding – primarily employing Huckabee’s daughter-in-law, Lauren Huckabee.

In 2008, Lauren left HuckPAC to briefly manage the unsuccessful U.S. Senate campaign for Curtis Coleman. In her return to Huckabee land, she landed as head of the Institute organized as a 501c(4).  In 2009, the Institute raised just over $185,000 but in 2010, this amount had fallen to under $20,000 and it folded.  A 990 is not found since 2010 on the Guidestar website – which provides data on non-profit organizations – likely due to the fact that they have not raised enough to require filing.

However the Institute is being re-branded as “America Takes Action Inc.”  According to the Washington Post, the 501c(4) is bringing on the big names of the Huckabee inner circle – his daughter and chief political consultant Sarah Huckabee Sanders, his former campaign manager Chip Saltsman, his top media strategist Bob Wickers, and his former communications director Alice Stewart. Chad Gallagher is now heading up his political action committee – HuckPAC.  These are all familiar names to those of us in Arkansas who followed his 2008 Presidential campaign.

According to The Washington Post article more focus is being put on the 501c(4) organization for a variety of reasons…

Huckabee’s newly formed non-profit advocacy group, America Takes Action, has begun to serve as an employment perch for his political team, recently bringing on a number of experienced campaign operatives.

Advisers are already scouting real estate in Little Rock, Ark., for a possible presidential campaign headquarters.

Huckabee is scheduled to spend part of November holding private meetings with powerful GOP financiers in Las Vegas, New York, and California, gauging their interest in being bundlers for his possible campaign and asking for pledges of five-to six-figure donations to his aligned organizations. And he is planning two strategy sessions in December, in Little Rock and Destin, Fla., near his new Gulf Coast home, to discuss timing, potential staffing, and an opening pitch to voters.

In addition, Huckabee is walking a fine line between jumping into the Presidential election process and still being able to keep his lucrative weekend show on FoxNews – “Huckabee.” Fox recently announced that it cancelled the paid contributor contract with Ben Carson as he dipped his toes too far into the Presidential waters. It appears Huckabee is hoping the 501c(4) activities allow him to begin organizing for a 2016 run without suffering the same fate. As Matea Gold with The Washington Times tweets

If you recall, Real Clear Politics’ Erin McPike flushed out a story in May 2011 saying Fox News had given Huckabee a month to decide whether to keep his show or run for President. Within two weeks, Huckabee made a much-hyped announcement on his Fox News Show that “all the factors say go, but my heart says no.”  (I don’t know if McPike ever got enough credit for getting that one right.)

In addition to this, 501c(4)s have become a more popular organization for candidates in the post Citizen United decision world.  Although the organizations are required to file annual 990’s, these often lag almost a year’s time before becoming public.  In addition, they have fewer disclosure requirements than PACs, which make it more difficult to follow who is funding the organization and where the money is spent.  By using the existing 501c(4), Team Huckabee can raise money from individuals who might be willing to pony up a big check for him to test the water without publicly committing to him as their candidate.

This appears to me to be a more serious discussion than what took place in 2011. Going into that cycle, Huckabee’s money-making empire was on the upswing with a daily radio show, his Fox News show, speaking fees, book deals, guide tours, and other various ventures.  The money was rolling in. Ed Rollins – the strategist who was quietly laying the ground work for a 2012 run – revealed in John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s book “Double Down” that money was a major factor in Huckabee’s consideration not to run in 2012.

Another factor some still on the inside of Team Huckabee have told me was his perceived inability not in obtaining the Republican nomination, but for whomever the Republican nominee was to beat President Obama in the general election. While he may or may not have done better than Mitt Romney, the results seem to prove his instincts were correct.

But now while Huckabee is still doing well, his arch seems to be on the downswing.  His daily radio show is now gone.  His marketability will continue to decrease in direct proportion to the waning memory of his surprisingly strong 2008 Presidential run. A 2016 Presidential run – whether successful or not – will put him back in the spotlight again. In addition, he still seems a likely frontrunner in early states such as Iowa and South Carolina, which should put him in the pole position for the Republican nomination. And unlike 2012, the general election is open without an incumbent, making this a quite different ballgame.

Going into 2012, I was relatively certain very early on that Huckabee would not run, but this time I am not so sure. There seem to be a lot of factors that point to the possibility that he might pull the trigger this time around.  Either way, an announcement will only be able to be prolonged so long before Fox News once again will likely force him to fish or cut bait on his weekly show.  Once it reaches that point – he will have to announce.

UPDATE – The Arkansas Democrat Gazette spoke with Alice Stewart yesterday who sounded like she is walking things back a bit from The Washington Post story…

Reached Wednesday, Stewart stressed Huckabee has made no decision on the run and that his nonprofit is an “advocacy group that allows him to focus on issues that are important to him.”

She said it should not be seen as a precursor to a campaign staff and added that she hadn’t heard anything about officials looking for campaign office space.

“I’m not aware of people searching for any office space in Little Rock,” she said.

Why? It could be this story also from The Washington Post that posted late yesterday saying Fox News is checking to make sure Huckabee’s political activities are kosher.

“We are taking a serious look at Governor Huckabee’s recent activity in the political arena,” said Bill Shine, executive vice president for programming at Fox. The network, he said is “evaluating his current status. We plan on meeting with him when he returns from his trip overseas.”

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