Mich. GOP strategist’s ‘news’ site touts clients

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — A prominent Michigan Republican strategist has ownership ties to a conservative news website that promotes his candidate clients and critiques their opponents, prompting accusations of “fake news.”

Business filings reviewed by The Detroit News show Conservative Intel LLC of Grand Rapids is among a growing roster of companies owned by or linked to consultant John Yob, a go-to political consultant whose firms made tens of millions of dollars on national political campaigns in 2016.

Yob is currently working for several declared or potential 2018 Republican candidates in Michigan, including U.S. Senate hopeful Lena Epstein, possible gubernatorial aspirant Lt. Gov. Brian Calley and Secretary of State hopeful Stan Grot.

The Conservative Intel site, which claims to be “your best source for insider news and information” about conservative Republicans across the country, has published flattering articles about all three — and criticized potential GOP primary opponents — through its “Michigan campaign desk.”

“I think for as much as Republicans complain about fake news, this is really the pinnacle of the definition,” said Democratic strategist T.J. Bucholz, founder of Vanguard Public Affairs in Lansing. “Public relations is about putting your best foot forward. It’s not about making things up or being dishonest.”

Conservative Intel LLC shares a mailing address with other Yob-related companies, and business records list his longtime associate Dave Dishaw as the designated agent. State and local campaign finance records show Dishaw has previously identified himself as an executive with Strategic National, Yob’s main consulting firm.

The ties to Yob are not limited to Michigan clients. The front page of the national website also features “latest news” pieces touting U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama, who recently ran for the Senate and has paid Yob-related companies for fundraising and polling. It has run stories complimenting Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, for whom Yob has worked as a campaign adviser.

Ethical issues may be at play if voters are “duped” into thinking they’re reading independent news that is indirectly linked to candidates, said Matt Grossman, a political scientist at Michigan State University and director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research.

Democratic strategists have used paid or friendly bloggers to get out their messages in the past, Grossman said. But Republican voters appear more receptive to articles from sites like Conservative Intel because of their distrust of mainstream media, he said.

“In the public, you think of ‘propaganda’ as a bad word, but in academia, we just see it as a synonym for public relations,” Grossman said. “This is certainly that.”

Asked whether he directly controls the site and if candidates pay for published stories, Yob said his companies “have been fortunate enough to have success in the information distribution industry” and “will continue to make investments as the mainstream media monopolies disintegrate and information distribution channels evolve.”

Yob said he would consider it a compliment if competitors or political opponents attack him for owning companies that “do the same kind of thing as Steve Bannon, Drudge or Daily Kos.”

Ethical questions raised

Yob is the son of longtime Michigan GOP power broker Chuck Yob. He remains a mainstay in state politics despite recently splitting his time between Grand Rapids and the Virgin Islands, which he fought to represent last year as a delegate to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

Yob and his consulting firm have worked directly for state and national candidates, including Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s 2016 presidential campaign, Arizona Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s 2010 and 2014 statewide races.

The Conservative Intel site has operated since at least 2013, when it turned heads by partnering with a new GOP polling firm. Politico reported in 2014 that the site is owned by Conservative Connector, another Michigan-based company linked to Yob.

Conservative Intel has heaped accolades on Yob’s clients and scorn on their opponents.

A recent story on the site highlighted a poll showing potential candidate Kid Rock leading the GOP Senate field if he gets into the race, with Epstein polling second at 9.4 percent. But like a press release that her campaign released the same day, the Conservative Intel headline declared that she led other declared candidates John James and Bob Young.

“Her lead is likely due in large part because of her massive appeal to the coalition of voters that elected President Donald Trump last November,” claimed the story, which had no author byline.

An earlier piece ripped Young’s “disastrous campaign roll-out,” suggesting it would open the door for “more Republican establishment candidates in Michigan.”

A June 5 Conservative Intel story highlighted another poll suggesting Republican primary voter support for Calley’s petition drive to make the Michigan Legislature a part-time body despite opposition from “Lansing Insiders.”

A separate post criticized Attorney General Bill Schuette, another potential gubernatorial candidate who could square off with Calley in the 2018 GOP primary. It quoted a former state department head who argued Schuette was “playing politics” with the Flint water crisis.

The stories were widely spread on social media. A Conservative Intel post on the Epstein poll story had 583 shares, 408 comments and more than 3,300 reactions on Facebook as of Tuesday. A separate post claiming Democrats were trying to exploit an alleged hack of her Twitter account got 359 shares, 577 comments and 898 reactions.

Yob’s connection to the website raises “interesting” ethical questions about the stories, said Dave Dulio, chairman of the political science department at Oakland University, who noted its social media reach reflects an increasingly fractured media landscape.

“I don’t think it’s deniable that the trend today is many Americans seek news that conforms to their own already-held beliefs,” he said. “And that’s for folks of all political stripes, from the far left to the far right.”

Yob’s growing empire

While Yob works as a general consultant on campaigns, he has fleshed out a growing business empire by moving into media and becoming a one-stop shop for political candidates.

Yob also recently purchased three conservative talk radio stations in northern Michigan, according to Federal Communications Commission records. His Mitten News LLC now owns WJNL (101.1 FM in Traverse City and 1210 AM in Kingsley) and WJML (1110 AM in Petoskey).

His reach makes him a powerful force in Michigan politics — and beyond.

Three GOP insiders discussed Yob’s unique operation with The Detroit News. Fellow Republicans are wary of criticizing his tactics because he has so many channels to get his own message out, said one source who requested anonymity because of potential political ramifications.

Yob has made a fortune in recent years, in part, by renting conservative email lists to candidates and political action committees across the country.

Federal Election Commission records show his Conservative Connector firm, which also lists Dishaw as a registered agent in state records, was paid more than $38 million in the 2016 election cycle.

The Trump Make American Great Again Committee, a joint fundraising committee for Trump and the Republican National Committee, reported paying Conservative Connector more than $31 million last cycle. The firm also rented email lists to the GOP presidential campaigns of Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorina and Chris Christie.

As more money pours into politics, “the people who are working as consultants and strategists have even more money to make,” said Craig Mauger of the nonprofit Michigan Campaign Finance Network. “So there’s more at stake for them to try to figure out how to produce more revenue.”

Michigan roster

Federal disclosure reports show Epstein has hired several Yob-related businesses to provide services in her campaign as she hopes to challenge incumbent U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat.

The Epstein campaign paid Transaxt more than $4,263 to process transaction fees on credit card donations. She also owes $12,653 to Vertical Strategies for digital consulting and advertising, and $3,000 to Conservative Connector for email list rental. In state records, each company lists a mailing address in a downtown Grand Rapids building that houses Yob’s consulting firm.

Three committees linked to Calley are also paying Yob-related companies. His candidate committee paid $27,508 to Direct Mail Integration on June 18. Calley’s part-time Legislature petition group recently paid $20,000 to Strategic National for political consulting in April and June.

“I think what we’ve seen from Yob, from my time looking into campaign finance records, is that he seems to be very creative,” Mauger said. “He’s just involved in more arenas than some of the other consultants are.”

It’s not unusual for political consultants to expand their operations and offer other services that might be useful for candidates to purchase, Grossman said, noting Yob is not the only national consultant taking such an approach.

“But obviously if he’s created a news website, that would be more unique.”

Yob’s political empire

These are among the Michigan companies owned by or linked to Grand Rapids/Virgin Islands political consultant John Yob:

■Strategic National Consulting LLC, a political consulting firm

■Conservative Connector, a company that rents email lists of conservative activists and donors

■Conservative Intel LLC, a self-proclaimed conservative Republican insider news website

■Direct Mail Integration, which produces direct mail pieces for political campaigns

■Transaxt LLC, a firm that helps build political online donation sites and process credit card transactions

■190 Personnel LLC, which provided “final walkers” for the kick off of Lt. Gov. Brian Calley’s part-time Legislature petition drive on Mackinac Island

■Vertical Strategies, a digital consulting, advertising and website development firm

■Advictory, a digital ad management firm

■Victory Phones, an “automated telephony” robo-call service for campaigns

Source: Detroit News research