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Tiny Group Linked To McConnell Recording Causes Big Stir

Sen. Mitch McConnell and his wife, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, at a Republican dinner in Winchester, Ky., last month.
Roger Alford
Sen. Mitch McConnell and his wife, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, at a Republican dinner in Winchester, Ky., last month.

So who exactly comprises , the superPAC linked to the surreptitious recording of a meeting at Sen. Mitch McConnell's campaign headquarters? In the recording, an aide is heard disparaging actress Ashley Judd, who was then considering a Senate run to challenge the Senate's top Republican.

Progress Kentucky was created in December 2012 and, according to its first filing with the via, raised just $1,005 last year and spent just $18.

Its minimal war chest mirrors the organization's size. It consisted of an executive director and a treasurer.

"When you think about the term 'superPAC,' we think of the Koch brothers. We think of Karl Rove. We think of an office building with 40 people who work for it and are getting paid and running these ads," said Phillip Bailey, political editor for NPR member station WFPL in Louisville. WFPL's news team has broken stories on this incident and a previous controversy involving the superPAC and McConnell.

"This is a group of really one person, Shawn Reilly, the executive director, a treasurer who resigned this week, and a bunch of volunteers who have done some protests outside of Sen. McConnell's house, who have done some protests outside some of his speeches in Lexington when he spoke before the Chamber of Commerce. ... Because of this term 'superPAC,' we think of them as this big, large sophisticated operation. They're anything but."

At the center of the latest Progress Kentucky controversy are Reilly and a volunteer named Curtis Morrison. Reilly's Louisville lawyer, Ted Shouse, has toldthe news media that his client and Morrison visited McConnell's campaign headquarters in February and overheard conversations through a closed door; he said a recording was made.

But Shouse said his client is innocent of the recording that eventually made its way to Mother Jones, the same publication that made public the recording of Mitt Romney's infamous "47 percent" remarks. Shouse didn't return a call from NPR.

Bailey describes Reilly, 30, and Morrison, 44, as friends who have worked on public issues together over the years, including an effort to stop tolls on the . Democratic activists, they also have unsuccessfully run for political office, including the state senate, Bailey said.

Progress Kentucky, however, has gained for them a notoriety they likely hadn't counted on when the superPAC formed. It's also gained an FBI investigation of the recording incident.

The superPAC made news earlier this year when WFPL broke the story that the group was behind a racially tinged tweet aimed at McConnell's wife, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao.

That earlier controversy and the latest one have led local, state and national Democratic organizations to make clear they have nothing to do with Progress Kentucky.

For McConnell, however, the little Democratic superPAC that has created such a big uproar is the gift that keeps on giving — even as other Democrats try to distance themselves from Progress Kentucky.

"From now on any candidate against McConnell ... will now have to essentially wash themselves of Progress Kentucky," Bailey said. "Is that fair? Probably not. But at the end of the day, if you're an incumbent Republican senator who is as unpopular as the polls show McConnell is right now, Progress Kentucky is your best friend right now."

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Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.
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