Cambridge Analytica’s Koch Disciples
Two of the political marketing firm’s latest hires are veterans of conservative youth training camps and right wing campaigns.
Data-harvesting firm Cambridge Analytica is scrambling to contain the fallout from revelations that it secretly gathered personal Facebook information on 70+ million Americans while seeking to tilt multiple recent federal elections toward the Republican Party. But just a few weeks before that bombshell hit, the company once steered by its ex-VP Steve Bannon was still working hard to deepen its ties to the American Right.
In late February, Cambridge Analytica (CA) touted its success in getting President Trump elected at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), America’s most influential rightwing gathering, where it was represented by long-time operatives of the Koch Brothers networks.
Dispatched to CPAC were Laquan Austion and Rachel Kania, two of the only six staff members identified on recent versions of the CA Political website. Though now visible only via archived copies of the heavily redacted site, each was pictured immediately below glamour shots of newly disgraced CEO Alexander Nix and Managing Director of CA Political Global, Mark Turnbull.
Cambridge Analytica and its British parent company SCL Group have long contended that they are non-partisan. In Feb 2018 testimony to UK Parliament, the now-suspended Nix said: “We are not a political agency, and we do not have a political ideology.”
Dr. Alex Tayler, Chief Data Officer at CA Commercial, Lead Data Scientist at SCL Elections, and temporarily acting CEO of CA, gave a keynote address at a Sept 2017 Ukraine tech conference in which he stated, “We’re a nonpartisan company … there just happened to be a market opportunity on the American Right.”
Those claims are contradicted by the 2017 hires of Laquan Austion, Vice President of CA Political, and Rachel Kania, Campaign Director of CA Political, both of whom have long histories of partisan political training, activism, and campaigning as important behind-the-scenes workhorses of the New Right.
CA announced the hiring of Austion on 13 June 2017, the same day as the Virginia House of Delegates District 2 Republican primary election, in which Austion ran for office unopposed. Two months later, Austion dropped out of the race after a Richmond newspaper found that he had falsely claimed advanced degrees in his LinkedIn resume.
In an online bio, Austion described himself as “outreach manager for the Charles Koch Foundation helping to identify and manage key strategic partners for the organization. He also served as a Grassroots Director for Americans for Prosperity Foundation where he played a pivotal role in recruiting over 80,000 conservative activists, training grassroots leaders, and developing statewide strategies for grassroots action.”
His Twitter profile points to examples of Koch-funded Americans For Prosperity (AFP) events which he helped organize in 2012–13 while at AFP New Jersey. Among them are a “Tax Freedom Day Event”, held at the NJ State House; a Manhattan stop of AFP’s “Obama’s Failing Agenda Bus Tour” when it arrived to “take on #OWS @OccupyWallSt goons”; and the 5th Annual Defending the American Dream Summit at AFP-NJ HQ, featuring Dinesh D’Souza, Michelle Malkin, and James O’Keefe, for which Austion received many congrats for organizing the event under the AFP-NJ directorship of current NJ Congressional candidate Steve Lonegan.
Americans for Prosperity was formed in 2004 by David and Charles Koch when they split their political group Citizens for a Sound Economy (CSE) in two, creating AFP and FreedomWorks. CSE was created by the Kochs as an anti-tax, anti-government nonprofit in 1984, with then-Congressman Ron Paul appointed its first chairman. After CSE split, David Koch became chairman of AFP Foundation, which worked alongside the Charles Koch Charitable Foundation to bankroll the birth & growth of the unleashed GOP: the Tea Party.
One month after what is often pointed to as the coming-out moment of the Tea Party, the 9–12 Taxpayer March on DC in Sept 2009, Rachel Kania appeared on a Russia Today (aka RT) cable news telecast. Her segment, titled “Young Americans fed up with two party political system?” when later uploaded to YouTube, found Kania interviewed as a member of Young Americans For Liberty and advocating for millenials to buck the system and join or form alternative right wing parties.
Young Americans for Liberty (not to be confused with Young Americans for Freedom, which co-founded CPAC in 1973) was formed from the ashes of Ron Paul’s 2008 presidential campaign. A few months after her first RT appearance, Kania again popped up in an RT segment titled “Ron Paul is the new star for Republicans” to hype Paul’s win in the Feb 2010 CPAC straw poll for favored GOP leader.
Kania appeared on RT for a third time in 9 months in May 2010, this time presented to Russia Today viewers as a prime example of a “young liberatarian [sic]”. That year, she completed the Youth Leadership School and Campaign Boot Camp programs through Morton Blackwell’s youth-focused Leadership Institute — a favorite of the conservative dark money crowd — following in the footsteps of powerful alumni, including Grover Norquist, Ralph Reed, Mitch McConnell, Mike Pence, David Bossie, and James O’Keefe.
Early 2011 brought Kania further into the Koch fold, when she spent several months at the Charles Koch Institute, just down the hall from the Koch Foundation. During that time she also interned at the Koch-founded Bill of Rights Institute, which has come under fire from media watchdogs over the years for its partisan proselytism of college students via on-campus outreach, media production, educator training, and sponsored school curricula. While there, Kania helped bring aboard more high schoolers and collegians by creating a politicized student forum.
Laquan Austion’s time with Koch organizations was also fruitful, as he was once listed as the contact for the United Negro College Fund’s Koch Scholars program. As part of a controversial $25,000,000 grant given to UNCF by Koch Industries & the Charles Koch Foundation, the posting referred applicants interested in “entrepreneurship, innovation and economics” to email “the Charles Koch Foundation’s Laquan Austion.”
Austion also founded two political organizations in 2016: America2026 and its parent Action for America, itself a project of a like-minded consulting firm called Run for America Action (which merged with thinktank Common Sense Action in 2015). Both of his organizations have since erased the majority of their web presences, but they both existed to drum up support and participants for what appears to be a third major US political party, with an eye toward recruiting millennial candidates from every congressional district to “craft a New American Agenda” over the next decade.
His organizations received a modicum of media publicity throughout 2016, including from USA Today, the Christian Broadcasting Network, a Ben Carson-headlined RNC event, and a New America forum at Civic Hall. Via those platforms, Austion repeatedly employed the refrain, “What Uber has done to taxis, what Airbnb has done to hotels, we want to do to politics.”
In a July 2016 Huffington Post blog, Austion himself wrote about his organizational goals, framing them in stark terms. “The populist unrest arising on both sides of the aisle,” he said, “reflects a deeper sort of decay- a rot at the very heart of our institutions.”
“But when our public institutions utterly collapse, enterprising leaders rebuild them within the space of a few short years I’ll refer to as ‘Founding moments,’” he continued. “These Founding Moments have occurred three times in the course of American history- at the Founding itself, with the Revolution and the Constitutional Convention; during the ‘Second American Revolution’ of the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the accompanying domestic reforms; and during the ‘Third American Revolution’ of the Great Depression, New Deal, and Second World War.”
Austion’s thesis of Founding Moments corresponds with the pseudoscientific timeline hypothesized by the ‘Strauss–Howe generational theory,’ which proffered the idea of Fourth Turnings. Each “Revolution” cited by Austion matches a Fourth Turning, alleged culminations of ~80-year cycles of human events.
Former Cambridge Analytica VP Steve Bannon is reportedly obsessed with this concept, believing the theorists to have predicted the major events of this new millennium and placed us at the precipice of another ekpyrotic Turning/Moment/Revolution. Bannon’s belief is evidenced in his 2008 film Generation Zero, featuring John Bolton and produced by Citizens United.
The theory’s co-creators actually employ the same terminology as Austion, in suggesting that Fourth Turnings lead to Founding Moments. According to Neil Howe, the latest Fourth Turning began in 2008 and will end in a Founding Moment around 2030, which is perfect timing for Austion’s America2026 and its New American Agenda to kick into high gear.
This means that Laquan Austion and Steve Bannon both anticipate an impending political revolution on a tight timeline, and both have been Vice Presidents of Cambridge Analytica.
Austion also appears to have close ties to the new leader of the Heritage Foundation, a leading think tank of the hard Right long nurtured by grants from the Koch brothers, as well as donations from Heritage & Cambridge Analytica board member Rebekah Mercer.
Kay Coles James was recently named as the 3rd President of Heritage, succeeding original Tea Party leader Jim DeMint. Heritage, a repeated CA client from 2015–17, now brags that President Trump has implemented 64% of the executive policy recommendations found in its “Blueprint for a New Administration” advisory report.
Austion tweeted out congratulations to Kay Coles James with “a special shoutout to my friend, mentor, and hero.” The circumstances of their relationship are unclear, but James has been involved in myriad enterprises, from the RNC (where Austion got his start in the Strategy Division) to the cabinets of both Bush 41 & 43, and from board member of right-wing evangelical Focus on the Family to Sr VP of right-wing evangelical Family Research Council.
In between 2011’s straw poll wins for Ron Paul at CPAC for a 2nd straight year and at the Family Research Council’s Values Voter Summit (as RT reported at the time), Rachel Kania joined Paul’s brief repeat presidential bid. She then jumped to the Ted Cruz for US Senate campaign in Texas, which touted supporters such as FreedomWorks, Jim DeMint, Ron Paul, and his son Rand Paul. As field director, Kania was credited with driving the surprisingly large “grassroots” turnout which propelled Cruz to a come-from-behind victory.
After some time running her own firm, she joined Rand Paul’s dual campaign for Senate reelection and 2016 GOP presidential nominee, given the reins as senior field and technical strategist in March 2015. By that time, Rand had more than replicated his father’s success by winning the CPAC straw poll in three straight years, from 2013–15, though his streak would end in 2016 when Ted Cruz took home the mantle.
Hired as chief digital strategist four months before Kania joined him at Paul’s Austin office was Vincent Harris, who had worked closely with her on Cruz’s campaign and also previously served as an instructor at the Leadership Institute. Harris joined Paul in November 2014, mere weeks before he was hired to lead the successful reelection campaign for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Harris was once hyperbolically called “The Man Who Invented The Republican Internet.” His company Harris Media very briefly worked for the Trump campaign; recently helped the far-right, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party make massive gains and join Parliament in the 2017 German elections; and also co-authored the winning campaign in a controversial and litigious Kenyan presidential election in 2017, a victory which was later temporarily overturned by the Kenya Supreme Court amidst bloodshed.
Harris worked alongside fellow Trump veterans Cambridge Analytica in 2017 Kenya, though in a recent Channel 4 video, SCL-CA’s Mark Turnbull boasted, “I think we wrote all the speeches, and we staged the whole thing — so just about every element of this candidate.”
Under Harris and Kania, Rand Paul for Senate actively courted Ron Paul supporters among the Silicon Valley elite, and became a paying client of i360, a full-service political campaigning agency primarily funded by the Kochs.
According to Politico, “i360 links voter information with consumer data purchased from credit bureaus and other vendors. Information from social networks is blended in, along with any interaction the voter may have had with affiliated campaigns and advocacy groups. Then come estimated income, recent addresses, how often a person has voted, and even the brand of car they drive.”
Rand Paul failed in his tech-focused 2016 bid, but Kania and Harris’ digital marketing campaign prowess was later echoed by the Giles-Parscale/Cambridge Analytica/RNC’s Project Alamo, receiving media accolades for their youthful team and social media advertising IQ. They also drew negative attention in April 2015 for attempting to appeal to religious voters by placing paid online ads exclaiming, “JEW FOR RAND.”
Despite that misstep, MSNBC profiled Kania as part of a June 2015 series on “The women bridging tech and politics in the 2016 election.” There she explained how Paul’s campaign had “the best technological capabilities in order to leverage big data for strategic decisions.” Those tools were used to “engag[e] young people through new communication channels,” because Ron Paul’s then-52-year-old son “is a voice for young people, and he understands the importance of utilizing technology to reach them.”
Univision’s Fusion TV interviewed Kania in Jan 2016 for a YouTube series about “30 women who will change the election.” Her video was titled, “For this libertarian, it’s all about ‘the freedom to create the life you want’”. Marie Claire also included her on a list of “The New Guard: The 50 Most Influential Women In America,” promoting her as “The Futurist”.
National media was ostensibly smitten, but like her new colleague Austion, Kania also faced accusations of deception in local political campaigns.
In January 2016, a few weeks before Rand Paul quit the presidential race, Austin journalists revealed that Kania was co-director of an unregistered PAC circulating a petition which called for the recall election of City Councilor Ann Kitchen, who had spearheaded a move to add new regulations to Uber & Lyft.
Kania’s PAC, named Austin4All, was also found to be run by Joe Basel, who had recently taped almost 500 hours of undercover video of the Texas legislature intended for publication on Bannon’s Breitbart. Basel’s previous claim to fame stemmed from his work with noted undercover videographer James O’Keefe, as both were arrested while impersonating telephone repairmen in order to gain access to Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu’s office phone system.
After Austin4All took pains to hide the true identities of its staff, barely managed to register as a legal PAC, was hit with formal ethics complaints, and allegedly misrepresented the petition to signers, Austin4All’s submitted petition was thrown out because it was never notarized. Proof of verification is a core requirement of most binding legal documents, but Kania denounced the petition’s rejection by stating, “It’s totally politically motivated.”
Upon withdrawing from his 2017 Virginia Delegate race, Laquan Austion echoed Kania’s sentiment when he responded to the investigation into his background by claiming, “It’s clearly an attack against me by the liberal media because I’m a black conservative — the Democrats’ worst nightmare.”
The week following CPAC, Austion and Kania attended an advertising awards event where CA was nominated for “Best Use of Online Targeting for Judicial Campaign”, though the exact judgeship in question is unknown. Between that work in 2017, their CPAC presence, and the repeated sale of services & data to Heritage Foundation as recently as last fall, CA has clearly still been pursuing exclusively American right wing political clients, despite SCL CEO Alexander Nix’s recent claims to the contrary.
“The company will grow significantly this year, even in the absence of chasing any U.S. political business,” Nix boasted to Forbes in Dec 2017, “We’re not a political agency, we’ve never been a political agency. We’re a tech company.”
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