Brought to you by ...? Mystery money pays for television political ads promoting Republicans

Markets Associated Press

Opportunity News Media wants you to know it's OK to be a Republican, and it is spending $3 million to say so in the presidential battleground states of Ohio and Colorado.

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Where that money comes from is anybody's guess.

The television ads serve as coming attractions of a sort for the 2016 campaign, for which politically minded donors have already given half a billion dollars to candidates and outside groups eager to back them. All that money ensures television viewers will be inundated by commercials good, bad and confusing.

Add in campaign finance regulations that are still evolving in the wake of the landmark Supreme Court decision known as Citizens United, and it's easier than ever for all kinds of groups to wade into politics and do so in ways that keep from the public the identities of who is paying for it all.

The commercials by Opportunity News Media have already aired some 3,000 times on stations that broadcast into Ohio and Colorado, according to data from political ad tracker Kantar Media CMAG. They're scheduled to continue through the first week of September at an estimated cost of $3 million. There is also a smaller cable- and radio-based campaign running in Pennsylvania.

Filled with children, workers and people of different ethnicities, the ads promote Republicans as interested in creating jobs, improving access to education and caring for the middle class. Many of the 30-second spots end with rays of sunlight peeking out from clouds as an upbeat female narrator says, "There are people who still believe opportunity lives in America, and we call ourselves Republicans."

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That's the sort of theme the GOP should take to voters, the Republican National Committee found in its assessment of why Mitt Romney lost to Barack Obama in 2012.

"Very powerful, uplifting and unifying," Ari Fleischer, one of the GOP report's authors and a longtime party strategist, said of the ads.

"I've never heard of the group running it," he added.

He's not alone.

Representatives of the Republican National Committee, the Republican Governors Association, the Ohio Republican Party and six well-known Republican outside groups all said they were not familiar with Opportunity News Media, even though the group is doing more to promote the GOP on television right now than anyone else.

So who are they?

Opportunity News Media LLC is identified as the sponsor at the end of the ads, in accordance with federal regulations. That company incorporated last year in Delaware, a state that requires very little information for such registration. As a private company without any direct connection to politics, it isn't required to disclose the source of its money.

The ads point viewers to a news website, opportunitylives.com. Its editor is John Hart, who used to work for recently retired Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn. He describes the site's news content as "unapologetically conservative."

Hart said about a dozen people work for or regularly contribute articles to the site. Several writers also have bylines in right-leaning publications such as the National Review and the Federalist.

But while Hart compares the ads to MSNBC's "Lean Forward" campaign, which cheers progressive and left-leaning ideas while aiming to build brand identification for the cable news network, the Opportunity News Media commercials do not promote the news site. Instead, they're focused broadly on Republicans.

Hart declined to identify any of the news site's backers or provide information about who paid for the ad campaign. But there are some clues on the site.

Its "terms of use" page calls it a project of the Center for American Opportunity, a nonprofit based in Arlington, Virginia. Bill Kristol, founder of the conservative political magazine The Weekly Standard, was one four board members of that group as of 2013, according to its most recent tax documents available online. Kristol said he is no longer on the board.

Those tax records show the center spent about $3.6 million in 2013 to underwrite the Washington Free Beacon, a brash conservative website that announced its new business model last year with a short video of bikini-clad model Kate Upton.

Hart said Opportunity Lives separated from the Center for American Opportunity a few months ago. He declined to say how much money the center had invested to that point — a total that won't likely be known until late next year, when the center files its 2015 tax forms.

Pete Snyder, a Virginia businessman whose investment firm Disruptor Capital advises media and technology startups, said he served on the center's board to guide the formation of Opportunity Lives — although he said he did not invest in the project.

Snyder said he believes there's a market for a right-of-center news service that floats above the fray and emphasizes feel-good stories.

"Sure, people want to see a train wreck, but plenty of other people want to see the Disney movie," Snyder said. Indeed, in his editor's note, Hart emphasizes, "We don't believe our role is to settle intra-movement debates."

The portrayal of Republicans in the commercials comes as several of the GOP presidential candidates are trying to rally the party's most conservative voters in ways that don't fit with the recommendations of the party's 2012 post-mortem. On the debate stage last week, for example, several candidates emphasized their staunch opposition to abortion and to an overhaul of the nation's immigration system that isn't focused on border security.

Those aren't subjects that come up in the Opportunity News Media ads.

In one, a woman shown playing with young children says, "A government that doesn't spend more than it has — I really don't think that's too controversial. If that makes you more Republican, I'm OK with that."

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Associated Press writers Jeff Horwitz and Stephen Braun contributed to this report.

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Follow Julie Bykowicz on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/bykowicz