A 30-second political commercial promoting Kai Kahele’s bid for Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District seems to have it all.
It begins with the family origins of the state senator, a Democrat, in the fishing village of Milolii on the Big Island.
Kahele is then described as a devoted husband and father, a decorated Air Force pilot (an accompanying photo looks like a still from “Top Gun”) and a supporter of Medicare For All.
“Caring. Courage. Community. Kai Kahele. Congress.”
Watch the ad:
It’s a strong clip, and it’s been airing locally including on KHON (“Big Bang Theory,” “Dr. Phil”) at the cost of more than $30,000.
But the Kahele campaign say it has nothing to do with the spot.
Rather, it is paid for by a super political action committee called the With Honor Fund, which has spent nearly $188,000 to send Kahele to the U.S. House of Representatives. It’s well-heeled backers include Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.
“With Honor Fund is a cross-partisan organization,” according to its website. “We help elect principled next-generation veterans in order to solve our biggest problems and fix a Congress that is dysfunctional.”
The national campaign finance tracking site Open Secrets reports that the super PAC has offices in Alexandria, Virginia, and has spent $4.2 million in support of candidates this election cycle. In addition to Kahele, it includes $563,000 on behalf of Republican Jason Church, a U.S. House candidate in Wisconsin, and $184,000 to help elect Democrat Janessa Goldbeck of California, also to the House.
Church is a U.S. Army Ranger School graduate who was wounded in Afghanistan, while Goldbeck served as a captain in the Marine Corps and was once deployed to Eastern Europe.
A related With Honor Action describes itself similarly to the fund, stating, “We support principled military veterans in the U.S. House of Representatives and help amplify their cross-partisan agenda that finds solutions for the American people.”
The high-profile advisory board for With Honor Action includes former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, former Secretary of State George Shultz, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullen, former presidential advisor David Gergen and former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles.
Also on the advisory board is Mike Bezos, the vice president and co-founder of the Bezos Family Foundation and the father of Jeff Bezos.
Bezos, the world’s richest man and publisher of The Washington Post, donated $10 million to the With Honor Fund in 2018, his first major political donation.
Why the Bezos-backed fund would be interested in electing Kahele, a first-time candidate for Congress, is unclear. A media inquiry Tuesday was not immediately responded to.
But the With Honor Fund is a serious PAC with serious donors, spending $10.3 million in the 2018 election cycle. It raised almost $19 million in 2018 and spent $14.3 million. More than $10 million went to support several dozen House candidates from both parties.
In addition to several other members of the Bezos family, donors that year included former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg ($250,000), Starbucks Coffee executive Howard Schultz ($50,000), Barbara Zweig, the widow of financier Martin Zweig ($500,000); and members of the Walton family of Arkansas ($225,000), which owns Walmart.
“With Honor Fund is a little unusual in that they are one of very few major super PACs that backs both Democrats and Republicans,” said Andrew Mayersohn, a committees researcher with the Center for Responsive Politics. “Kahele is the Democrat they’ve spent the most to support this cycle.”
Super PACs are not permitted to coordinate directly with candidates and their campaigns.
The With Honor Fund has drawn some controversy.
In 2018, it attacked Democratic congressional candidate Lauren Baer as unpatriotic for “voicing opinions critical of U.S. foreign policy in a college newspaper after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.”
The PAC, according to HuffPost, supported the candidacy of Rep. Brian Mast, a Republican and U.S. Army veteran “who lost both his legs because of an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan.”
The Intercept reported that the PAC later took down the ad but continued to support the candidate. The author, David Dayen, called the ad “a throwback to a sad moment in American history. In the months and even years after 9/11, any criticism of America’s actions in the world was deemed to be borderline treasonous.”
Baer lost to Mast.
Both The Intercept and the HuffPost reported that endorsed candidates are asked to make a political pledge to the With Honor Fund. Among other things, the pledge states “I will work to bring civility to Congress” and “I will join with colleagues on both sides of the aisle on at least one piece of substantial legislation each year, and co-sponsor additional pieces.”
The Kahele campaign confirmed that Kahele took the pledge.
Ironically, Kahele likely does not appear to need much electoral help.
There are 18 people running for the CD2 seat, including four other Democrats, nine Republicans, one Libertarian, one American Shopping Party candidate and two nonpartisan candidates.
But none of them have anywhere near the public stature and support of Kahele, who has racked up major endorsements and raised nearly $1 million for his race and spent about two-thirds of it.
In another irony, according to his campaign Kahele is also prohibited from campaigning at present because of a U.S. Department of Defense directive. He is on active National Guard duty.
Asked for a comment about the outside spending, his campaign manager, Trisha Kehaulani Watson, said the campaign was “unaware” of the outside advertising.
“We were both surprised and very grateful for the support he has received from these independent groups, and firmly believe this support is a reflection of his leadership as a veteran and progressive Democrat,” said Watson.
Watson said the campaign expected Kahele to be “back in the campaign on primary election day,” which is Aug. 8.
The With Honor Fund is not the only outside money helping Kahele. Another super PAC, Democratic Progress, has spent $75,000 to elect Kahele. The group’s name is stamped on glossy mailers on Kahele’s behalf.
“Proud Native Hawaiian,” reads one mailer. “Veteran combat pilot.”
The single donor to Democratic Progress in 2020, Unite America, bills itself as “a movement of Democrats, Republicans, and independents working to put voters first by fostering a more representative and functional government.”
Its founder and co-chair is Charles Wheelan, identified as a senior lecturer in public policy at Dartmouth College, a former Democratic congressional candidate in Illinois in 2009 and an author.
Open Secrets says Democratic Progress is supporting two other Democrats for the House this year.
Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom that provides free content with no paywall. That means readership growth alone can’t sustain our journalism.
The truth is that less than 1% of our monthly readers are financial supporters. To remain a viable business model for local news, we need a higher percentage of readers-turned-donors.
Will you consider becoming a new donor today?