Inside Kanye’s Operation to Ratf*ck Biden in Iowa

Lachlan Markay-September 14, 2020, 4:31 AM EDT

Kanye West’s presidential campaign appears to have hired a pair of Republican consultants who have been dogged by allegations of ethically questionable organizing practices over the years.

The A-list rapper’s political team has brought on Nathan Sproul, a seasoned GOP operative who leads one of the party’s go-to grassroots strategy firms. Sproul, in turn, appears to be working with an obscure GOP operative with a sketchy history of work on Sproul’s behalf to build a get-out-the-vote operation for West in the swing state of Iowa.

The previously unreported Iowa organizing operation doesn’t appear to be particularly large or sophisticated. But it shows how a small team of committed Republicans is trying to boost West’s candidacy—at the expense, critics say, of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.

Since June, West’s campaign has steered seven-figure sums to an Arizona-based firm called Fortify Consulting. That firm shares an address with the Lincoln Strategy Group, which Sproul leads, and which worked on behalf of President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign. The Washington Post reported this week that Sproul is indeed assisting the West campaign with its efforts to gather enough petition signatures to secure spots on various presidential ballots in states across the country.

Sproul, a former chairman of the Arizona GOP, has faced controversy over the years stemming from allegations of illicit petition-gathering and voter-registration practices by canvassers employed by his various consulting firms. Sproul and his companies have mostly escaped official allegations of wrongdoing. One of the few formal legal complaints against Sproul, an allegation before the Federal Election Commission that he boosted Ralph Nader’s candidacy in 2004 at the behest of the GOP, was dismissed after Sproul signed an affidavit flatly denying it.

In 2012, however, three canvassers working for Sproul’s Strategy Allied Consulting pleaded guilty to felony charges in Florida related to the destruction of voter registration forms. The court in the Florida case found that the canvassers were acting on their own initiative, and not with the knowledge or at the direction of Sproul or his company. But the resulting controversy spurred the Republican National Committee to cut ties with Sproul’s firm.

Sproul did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

The other operative apparently working on West’s behalf in Iowa is a man named Gary Thompson. Domain registration data shows that he created a new website, iowavotes2020.com, in early August dedicated to recruiting canvassers for some unspecified cause. “We are a united and diverse group that stand for the common good and advocate for policies that are in the public interest,” the website declares in language that also appears, verbatim, on the websites of local political candidates in Ohio and New Jersey.

Thompson’s IowaVotes2020 group has also been running ads on Craigslist and other online classifieds sites promoting its canvasser recruitment efforts in Iowa. “200 PEOPLE NEEDED IMMEDIATELY,” declared one of those listings, which said canvassers would earn between $100 and $200 per day. “THIS IS A WALKING CAMPAGN [sic] THAT WILL LAST UNTIL THE ELECTION. WORK FULL OR PART TIME. PERFECT JOB TO MAKE SOME EXTRA CASH.”

None of those classified ads say whom the canvassers would be working to elect, or even whether a particular candidate or political party is the intended beneficiary. “You simply knock doors on a walking list we provide you and ask the registered voter who they plan to vote for,” the group’s website says.

But an additional clue sat buried in news reports more than a decade old: In 2006, Thompson and his company, Liberty Consultants, were hired by Sproul to conduct voter registration drives in Tennessee.

Like some of Sproul’s work, Thompson’s efforts in 2006 drew allegations of problematic, and potentially illegal, organizing practices. He was never officially accused of wrongdoing, but election officials in Tennessee said that Thompson’s company had turned in apparently forged voter registration forms. Officials in one county said they’d also received complaints that Liberty organizers would only process voter registration forms for people who agreed to sign unrelated petitions that Thompson’s company was working on.

During the same election cycle, Walmart stores in Tennessee banned Liberty from holding voter registration drives at its locations after Thompson admitted that he had been retained by Sproul, a violation of the retail chain’s policies on partisan activity at its stores.

Reached by phone on Thursday, Thompson was initially coy about the work he’s now doing in Iowa. He said his IowaVotes2020.com effort is working to elect “mainly anybody on the Republican side,” but added, “We don’t really discuss that because we keep things quiet when it comes to reporting and stuff like that.”

Thompson also contradicted the language in his classified ads and on the IowaVotes2020 website, which characterize the canvassing efforts as a polling operation designed to gauge voter preferences. “All we’re doing is getting out the vote,” he said.

After less than two minutes, he hurriedly told The Daily Beast, “I can’t say anything else. Have a good day,” and hung up. He also immediately hung up during a subsequent call when asked about his relationship with Sproul.

In a third phone conversation, The Daily Beast asked Thompson point-blank whether he is working on behalf of West’s presidential campaign.

“Maybe,” he conceded. Asked to clarify, he said, “Just maybe… Anyways, I can’t talk to you about anything. Talk to you later. Bye.”

West officially qualified for the Iowa presidential ballot on Aug. 18. Paperwork filed with the state was submitted by a Republican operative in Des Moines, and the possible electors listed on that form were all Republicans in the state. The West campaign overcame a challenge to his Iowa candidacy on Aug. 31.

At some point in between, Thompson’s group began trying to recruit canvassers. Its ad on the website Global Free Classified Ads was posted on Aug. 27. The group also posted a handful of ads on Craigslist this week attempting to recruit canvassers by promising pay of up to $40 per hour.

Thompson and Sproul are just two of a handful of Republican operatives working to land West on various presidential ballots. His campaign has paid Fortified Consulting nearly $1.5 million, according to FEC records. It also paid seven figures to a firm run by Gregg Keller, formerly a top official at the Missouri Republican Party.

The slate of GOP operatives working to get West on the ballot are generally understood to be boosting what they hope will be a spoiler candidate. The conventional wisdom is that West will draw votes away from Biden, potentially handing Trump a victory in states with slim presidential vote margins.

“Kanye’s gonna fight everywhere for ballot access,” Keller tweeted on Friday. “He’s not going away.”

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