Evangelicals for Mitt? ‘Grassroots’ Group Has Close Ties to the Romney Campaign

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Charlie Neibergall / AP

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks during a town hall meeting, Dec. 9, 2011, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Nancy and David French, a couple from Columbia, Tenn., are perhaps the most visible evangelical supporters of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. They started a group called Evangelicals for Mitt back in 2005. Both regularly post to a pro-Romney blog at the Evangelicals for Mitt website. Nancy French just last week began writing her posts from Des Moines, Iowa. And Nancy and David have both contributed to National Review, where they occasionally defend Romney and criticize his rivals.

“We started as a group of friends who supported him – grassroots,” Nancy French says. “We are not connected to the campaign. We do what we want and say what we want.”

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Though David and Nancy French deny it, campaign finance experts say the couple’s group looks like a thinly disguised extension of the Romney campaign. “They appear to be able to spend lots of money, but won’t say where it comes from,” says Fred Wertheimer, founder and President of Democracy 21. “It is circumstantial evidence, but it suggests this is a shell group for a Romney operation.”

Indeed, what is perhaps most interesting about Evangelicals for Mitt is how apparent its links to Romney Central are. Nancy French worked for Romney’s 2008 campaign and partnered with Romney’s wife, Ann, on an unpublished book. The couple also served as steering committee vice chairs on Romney’s 2008 National Faith and Values Steering Committee.

The Frenchs are also quietly linked to two wealthy Romney donors in Massachusetts, John Kingston and Kurt Keilhacker, and all four have close ties to Romney’s campaign funding organization through a web of companies and nonprofits. Among other things, the four operate a Christian nonprofit organization that raises money out of a building in Beverly, Mass., at 138 Conant Street. The company that handles the Romney campaign’s finances shares that same address.

David and Nancy French come from modest means. Evangelicals for Mitt, however, has made news by spending serious money. The group tipped the scales in favor of Romney at the April 2010 Southern Republican Leadership Conference straw poll in New Orleans by buying at least 200 tickets for Romney supporters at a total cost of nearly $40,000. It handed out 800 copies of Romney’s book “No Apology” and 2,000 Evangelicals for Mitt piggybanks. Attendees who took up the offer speculated in the press that Evangelicals for Mitt must have found them via Romney’s campaign e-mail contact list.

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When asked by TIME where that money came from, Nancy French merely says, “We’ve got friends.” And she argues that her group is not compelled to reveal the source of that money because the spending occurred in April 2010. “This was before he was a candidate,” she said of Romney. “So the campaign finance stuff did not apply in terms of the limits.”

That is true, says Larry Noble, a campaign finance attorney, who suggests the group has received sound legal advice. Noble says the group is also likely exempt from filing paperwork as a political action committee because David and Nancy currently restrict their advocacy to their own website and media outlets, although it is possible the group could still trigger the interest of the Federal Election Commission, depending on how it raises money. But nothing about Evangelicals for Mitt’s financing is public since the group has not organized itself as a political or nonprofit entity. “We are nothing,” Nancy French says. “We are a group of friends.”

Though Nancy French is coy about the origin of the money that her group spent in New Orleans, she and David made a similar effort on behalf of Romney at the same convention in Memphis, Tenn., in 2006. The Associated Press reported that Nancy and David arranged for some 200 Romney supporters to be put up at a Marriott hotel in Memphis and that Kingston and Keilhacker paid the bills. (Kingston and David French are old friends from Harvard law, Nancy tells TIME).

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Kingston, Vice Chairman of Affiliated Managers Group, and Keilhacker, a venture capitalist, have donated tens of thousands of dollars to Romney and the Massachusetts GOP over the years. Like the Frenches, the two businessmen were also principals in Romney’s 2008 National Faith and Values Steering Committee.

Kingston, Keilhacker, and David and Nancy French also together run SixSeeds, a Christian nonprofit group that raises funds out of the office at 138 Conant Street in Beverly, Mass. SixSeeds’ tax records show the treasurer of the nonprofit is Bradley Crate, who is also the chief financial officer of the Romney campaign. Crate’s campaign finance company, Red Curve Solutions, is housed at the same office at Conant Street.

Crate’s brother, Darrell, is treasurer of the Romney campaign. Before leaving the company to join the Romney campaign, Darrell Crate was the chief financial officer at AMG, working alongside Kingston. Darrell Crate, who was also chairman of the Massachusetts Republican Party when Romney was governor of the state, is also listed in a SixSeeds pamphlet as a member of the group’s “Ambassador Roundtable.” In another AMG connection, the company’s Chief Executive Officer, Sean Healey, is married to Kerry Healey, whom Romney plucked from obscurity to become lieutenant governor of Massachusetts.

These new details about Evangelicals for Mitt come as the candidate is struggling with evangelical voters. In key early primary states, Gingrich’s support among born-again Christians is nearly double or triple Romney’s. Last week’s TIME/CNN/ORC poll found Romney has only 13% of born-again support in Iowa, while Gingrich boasts 31% and Ron Paul claim 19%. In Florida, Gingrich outpaces the pack with fully 50% of born-again support; Romney is a distant second at 22%. South Carolina’s numbers tell a similar story. If Gingrich continues to win that crucial evangelical voting bloc, Romney, ever the victim of evangelical caution towards Mormonism, may have to rely on David and Nancy French more than ever.

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