Heading into the 2014 midterm elections, polls showed the Republican Party had an opportunity to retake control of the Senate. Such a change would severely limit President Barack Obama’s legislative agenda during his final two years in office, an outcome that was especially attractive to the National Rifle Association. In the wake of devastating events like the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the president had become an aggressive promoter of new gun regulations.
To get its message out, the NRA turned to an unknown consulting firm, Starboard Strategic, paying it $19 million. More than a third of that money was invested in must-win Senate seats in Colorado, North Carolina and Arkansas — three of the most expensive in the country — paying for a host of television, radio and internet ads.
It was not unusual for the NRA to spend large sums of cash in an election cycle. What was odd was where the money was going. Before 2013, Starboard Strategic had never appeared in Federal Election Commission reports. Someone curious about the firm would have found a skeletal website that listed no staff, clients, address, phone number or previous work. There was just some generic branding language (“Good advertising and good ground operations start with good strategy”) and a basic email address: email@example.com. Yet at a moment when the stakes were high—Republicans needed six seats to claim a majority—the firm had come out of nowhere to become the NRA’s top election contractor.
Acquiring business of this magnitude would be an incredible feat for a firm with no reputation. The question is whether it was really accomplished by Starboard, or another outfit called OnMessage.
Well-established and well-connected, OnMessage is as transparent as Starboard is opaque. What the Federal Election Commission and the public do not know is that the two entities appear to be functionally one and the same.