Last August, in the midst of a presidential battle that would determine the future of America, an upstart liberal group called MeidasTouch sent its supporters an urgent call to action. “Tonight is a huge night,” MeidasTouch declared on Twitter. “We are giving half of our contributions directly and immediately to Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. We are proud to have already chipped in 25K to their campaign. RT and chip in here.”
For MeidasTouch, the pro-Biden blitz was part of a rapidly expanding political action committee that turned viral tweets and posts into campaign contributions. Founded by three brothers, the group says it has generated more than a billion views on social media, mocking and humiliating Trump and his enablers. Crowd favorites included “Creepy Trump,” “Bye Ivanka,” and “Bye Don Jr: Love Me, Daddy!” Its podcast has become a popular destination on the anti-Trump circuit, with recent guests including Democratic Reps. Eric Swalwell and Ted Lieu, and Mary Trump, the former president’s estranged niece. All this exposure translated into more than $5 million in contributions from #Resistance donors desperate to oust Trump and his Republican collaborators.
The three brothers who founded MeidasTouch sell themselves as the progressive breakout success of the 2020 election cycle, weaving a narrative of a start-from-scratch operation that — thanks to a gift for creating viral anti-Trump videos and a unique understanding of the digital tides — rapidly blossomed into a behemoth of Democratic politics. “We’ve become the most recognizable and impactful brand name in progressive politics in the 30 days since we launched,” Ben Meiselas, the eldest brother, told Adweek in June. They aren’t, per their own telling, just the top brand, they’re also pioneers of a radical transparency model that the notoriously opaque world of Super PACs could stand to learn from. “I knew that PACs in general, political action committees, have a reputation about them,” Meiselas said on a recent MeidasTouch podcast. “And I wanted this to be so different from every other PAC, starting with the fact that me, who works for this every day, doesn’t get paid. But, two, to have the most ridiculous amount of transparency possible.”
But the full story of MeidasTouch is more complicated. The group spent more than $1 million on an advertising strategy that it calls revolutionary but campaign veterans and independent experts say is nonsensical and a more effective tool for fundraising than for helping Democrats win elections. And despite its promised transparency, MeidasTouch’s financial structure makes a dollar-for-dollar accounting of its spending impossible — and, according to a former Federal Election Commission attorney, raises some of the same legal issues that got the Trump campaign into trouble in 2020.
It’s not hard to find examples of how MeidasTouch’s grandiose self-promotion doesn’t match reality. Take, for example, the fundraising plea blasted out last August. The Super PAC, per its own disclosure forms, didn’t donate $25,000 to the Biden campaign — and indeed, a direct donation from MeidasTouch to Biden would have violated campaign-finance laws. Instead, the donations came from people who clicked on an embedded link in Meidas’ tweet and were given the option to split their donation between the Biden campaign and the Super PAC. Donors gave $31,623 to the Biden campaign, and MeidasTouch received nearly $30,000.
The arrangement was neither illegal nor uncommon, but was MeidasTouch — which bills itself as uniquely transparent and honest — misleading its donors when it said: “We are giving” money to the Biden campaign and “we are proud to have already chipped in”? The ones who were giving were Meidas’ donors, not the Super PAC itself. “It’s extremely misleading,” says Adav Noti, chief of staff at the Campaign Legal Center and a former associate general counsel at the Federal Election Commission. “It’s not just PACs who do it. The Trump campaign did it ad nauseam. They did it so much it started not working anymore, which is hard to do. It’s obviously misleading.”
MeidasTouch, like many other Super PACs, is fueled by anti-Trump donors who, outraged and terrified by Trump’s malevolence and incompetence, were ready to open their wallets like never before in 2020. But those donors were pouring money into a broken campaign-finance system. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and other court rulings have allowed Super PACs to raise unlimited sums of money but given them few rules or guidelines on how to spend it. The rules that do exist are rarely enforced, as the Federal Election Commission went dormant for most of 2020 because it was unable to form a quorum.
This system has created a free-for-all environment in which donors are continually asked for money, often on social media, but have meager legal protection to ensure that those dollars are being spent wisely, ethically, or even in the way they intended. “With PACs, it’s the Wild West,” says Paul S. Ryan, a vice president at Common Cause, a watchdog group that advocates for campaign-finance reform. “I always tell people who want to give to a PAC, ‘Donor beware.’”
In the case of anti-Trump Super PACs, every dollar wasted is one that could have been spent fighting a Republican Party that has embraced the former president’s bigotry and authoritarianism. But without clear legal guidelines, donors looking for bright lines dividing well-run, effective groups from ineffective ones will instead find shades of gray.
The three brothers behind MeidasTouch don’t see any gray area around their efforts. With a “numbers-don’t-lie” approach, the Meiselas brothers point to their prodigious online success. MeidasTouch has created more than 500 political videos “for fractions of pennies on the dollar,” which it says have racked up more than 1 billion views across all social media platforms. It touts the hundreds of hashtags it created, such as #DiaperDon, that it says were top U.S. and global Twitter trends. It has legions of devoted followers who call themselves the #MeidasMighty. The brothers host a podcast that one recently called “the top new news podcast in the world.” And when Democrats emerge victorious, Meidas’ founders aren’t shy about claiming credit. “We accomplished exactly what we set out to with Biden’s victory and now control of the Senate with the wins in Georgia,” Brett Meiselas, an Emmy Award-winning digital editor who is the PAC’s creative engine, told Rolling Stone in January. “The Meidas Mighty are one of the most powerful forces in politics!” he tweeted in April.
But experts and fellow political operatives questioned the connection between MeidasTouch’s success and Democrats’ victories, and when Rolling Stone began asking questions about how MeidasTouch spends its money, things got weird.
Given an opportunity to respond to Rolling Stone’s reporting and inquiries, the brothers leveraged their social media muscle to promote a misinformation campaign full of bizarre conspiracy theories and online vitriol. They went after the credibility of the magazine and its reporter more than a week before this story was published online. MeidasTouch publicly threatened to sue Rolling Stone and privately threatened to sue someone who spoke to the magazine for this story — demanding the publication apologize and pay its legal costs.
It turns out, when someone dared to scrutinize these darlings of the anti-Trump movement, they responded a lot like, well, Donald Trump.
MeidasTouch got its start when the Meiselas brothers — Ben, Brett, and Jordan — found themselves stuck indoors watching Trump’s coronavirus press conferences in early 2020 and decided to turn their frustrations into action. Brett Meiselas began producing videos that rapidly gained MeidasTouch an online following with the anti-Trump resistance. In mid-May, the brothers registered MeidasTouch as a Super PAC and started positioning themselves as more than just Twitter darlings. “We thought that being a digital company was great, but it has limitations,” Ben Meiselas told Rolling Stone in an initial interview in December. “The world doesn’t live on Twitter.”
MeidasTouch’s evolution from a digital-media venture to a Super PAC brought with it new opportunities as well as new responsibilities. Super PACs are designed to communicate directly with voters independently of campaigns. By forming one and raising money to run ads on TV, the Meiselas brothers signaled a move beyond internet vitality and an expansion of their efforts to more traditional forms of political persuasion to help Democrats win elections.
The brothers had their eye on a larger media venture. The day after they registered MeidasTouch with the FEC, one of the brothers formed an identically named LLC in California, which holds a trademark for multimedia entertainment services aimed at progressive causes.
Like many Super PACs, MeidasTouch’s biggest single category of spending was TV ads. The ads consume so much of overall political spending because campaigns typically use them to saturate the airwaves in the hopes of persuading elusive swing voters — the critical targets for winning elections — or energizing the base.
In the world of TV advertising, the cost of a buy is directly tied to its reach. Both political campaigns and commercial advertisers measure the reach of ad campaigns in “gross ratings points” — a gauge of how often an average viewer in the target market would see an ad. For political operations, the standard threshold for an effective ad buy is 1,000 GRPs, a market-saturating run that the average viewer would see 10 times. (One gross rating point is the equivalent of reaching one percent of the viewing audience with a single ad.) Barring rare circumstances, ad campaigns that dip too far below that threshold are ineffective, according to eight political and media experts who spoke with Rolling Stone.
One of MeidasTouch’s first TV ad campaigns — July commercials in Texas that criticized Trump — didn’t come close to that 1,000 GRP threshold for efficacy. It sprinkled 41 gross rating points over the Dallas airwaves and dusted Houston with 23 points, according to an analysis from CounterPoint Strategies, a media consulting firm. Another way of looking at it is that the average TV viewer in Houston had a less than one-in-four chance of seeing a single MeidasTouch ad.
The group tweeted that it had made a “six-figure” ad buy in Texas, but a search of invoices TV stations file with the Federal Communications Commission shows the group spent less than $80,000 worth of donor money to buy airtime for an ad that featured Jeffrey Epstein and called out Trump’s racism. It’s unclear how an ad of such limited television reach would have made a hint of difference, according to the eight experts. One media consultant describes MeidasTouch’s media buys as “pissing in the wind.”
Subsequent ad campaigns didn’t have a much greater reach, a few were even smaller, and all were below the 1,000 gross rating point industry standard, according to CounterPoint’s analysis. A $31,000 TV ad run in August in Maine bought MeidasTouch 34 gross rating points. In September, $23,900 spent on Pittsburgh TV bought 79 gross rating points. An election-eve buy in Tallahassee, Florida, for $1,490 registered a minuscule 18 gross rating points. The closest MeidasTouch came to the industry benchmark was a 601-GRP buy for nearly $50,000 in Charleston, South Carolina, in October.
“There’s no way any message was getting across with [these buys]. None. Zero. Zip. It’s not possible,” says Joe Trippi, a veteran Democratic political consultant who ran both Howard Dean’s presidential campaign and Doug Jones’ 2017 upset Senate win in Alabama. “We already know voters don’t remember anything at 300 points a week. You could buy 300 points a week, day in and day out, for 52 weeks and, at the end of it, no one would know what you’re talking about.” Trippi adds he was generally supportive of anti-Trump groups like MeidasTouch.
That said, in limited circumstances, Trippi says there can be good reasons for a small media buy, pointing to a low-GRP run in Crawford, Texas — where former President George W. Bush has a ranch — that drove fundraising and defined the anti-war stance of the Dean campaign in the 2004 Democratic primary. The Lincoln Project used a similar strategy when it ran anti-Trump ads on Fox News in Washington, D.C., aimed at provoking a response from the president. MeidasTouch used this tactic when it paid $50,000 to run one of its ads on D.C. cable. This gamble made sense: Had Trump reacted, it would have driven fundraising and paid for itself many times over.
Asked for comment about its small buys, MeidasTouch says that examining the reach of its TV spending on its own “reflects an outdated, 1980s style of political campaigns, and not the digital and viral approach so successfully pioneered by MT.” MeidasTouch’s media consultant, David Jacobson of J&Z Strategies, says the group sought to maximize its limited resources by buying ads on early-morning and evening TV news programs to reach informed viewers who are more likely to vote. Asked whether small media buys were a waste of money, Jacobson says there is no magic number of views where an ad goes from unmemorable to memorable. Showing an ad that viewers see more than 10 to 15 times a week can be counterproductive, he says, adding that the first time someone sees an ad is the most important.
J&Z Strategies was MeidasTouch’s single-biggest vendor. The Super PAC routed $2.6 million worth of campaign activity through J&Z — more than half of all of MeidasTouch’s total spending. In addition to handling all of the Super PAC’s $1.5 million in TV-ad spending, J&Z also worked on billboards, mailers, and robocalls, among other activities. The work earned J&Z a six-figure commission.
Meidas argues its ads are special because they’re backed by a massive social media footprint and generated follow-up coverage. But according to David Shor, an influential Democratic data analyst, “The only people who engage with anti-Trump ads are liberals.” Moreover, when Priorities USA, a liberal Super PAC, studied whether Twitter virality could be used to measure how effective an ad would be at persuading swing-state voters, it found it wouldn’t work. “The better the ad did on Twitter, the less it persuaded battleground-state voters,” Nick Ahamed, Priorities’ analytics director, told the Daily Beast in December. “Our takeaway is that we, as political operatives or people online on Twitter a lot, aren’t necessarily a good judge of what is persuasive.”
It may be that “replaying shopworn political ads over and over again,” as MeidasTouch puts it, is a “wrong and outdated” way of looking at this. The group says people are taking shots at it because of its success. But if MeidasTouch is wrong — and instead it’s the experts Rolling Stone spoke with and Priorities USA’s internal research that are correct — then its broadcast-TV ad campaign was a huge waste of donor money and its tweets weren’t persuading swing voters. “The law allows [Super PACs] to be stupid and inefficient with how they use their money,” says Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School who specializes in election law and political reform. “But it’s strange you would light money on fire when there is so much that could be done with it.”
MeidasTouch pointed to its “Grinches of Georgia” ad that it ran on CNN before and after one of the Georgia Senate debates. The airtime cost $100,000, and Meidas said it became “one of the most talked-about and viewed of all ads in the election cycle,” buttressed by a billboard and mailer campaign. But did it influence voters in Georgia? MeidasTouch said the CNN ad on Georgia’s election ran nationally, meaning that in 49 of the 50 states where it was shown, viewers were eligible to donate to the PAC but not eligible to vote in the race. One political consultant says the ad had more impact on MeidasTouch’s brand-building and fundraising than on helping Democrats take back the Senate.
Local TV ads that it did run in Atlanta followed the earlier pattern of low-GRP buys. Around Thanksgiving, the group ran back-to-back ads in Georgia’s two Senate races. The ads attacking then-Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue ran at 131 and 100 gross rating points, respectively. With $230,000 of donations, MeidasTouch bought ads that the average viewer would see only once a week — about one-tenth of the industry standard threshold for an effective ad run. “100 GRPs? I don’t understand that,” says Trippi. “You’re hitting a whole lot of Trump people, you’re hitting a whole bunch of people that aren’t ever going to respond, and you’re not getting any gross rating points for that money. There are much better ways to spend it.”
MeidasTouch kept its Twitter followers up to speed on the campaign and repeatedly asked for more money to keep the ads on the air. In November, after the presidential election, the group launched a program with the ambitious goal of raising $1 million to run ads in the then-upcoming Georgia Senate races. “Folks: we are going on TV starting tomorrow in Georgia,” MeidasTouch told its Twitter followers. “Everything we do is crowdfunded. We need your help.” Within hours, the Super PAC was back with another message: “We need to raise $100,000 in the next 72 hours to keep this ad on the air in Georgia beyond the next seven days.”
In addition to TV ad buys, MeidasTouch says its effort in Georgia also involved 56 billboards, a $450,000 direct-mail campaign, a canvassing campaign that knocked on 30,000 doors, and 114 port-a-potties at voting locations on election day, among other efforts. The group also released a video of Patti Austin singing a get-out-the-vote song that became a viral election “anthem” and received more than a million views. The group notes that during that time it regularly updated donors on how it was spending its resources. Those updates were often accompanied by requests that donors give more. “Thanks to everyone who stepped up and made this possible! We want to keep our ads on the air in Georgia through the election,” the group tweeted the day before Thanksgiving. “Every dollar and retweet counts.”
Every dollar, however, did not get spent. Even as it continued to send out one fundraising plea after the next as Georgia’s election day approached, MeidasTouch sat on a campaign war chest that it never emptied. The group ended 2020 with more than $467,000 in cash on hand. Its latest FEC filing shows that on January 25th, two weeks after the Georgia runoffs, it was sitting on more than $660,000.
“Transparency is in our DNA,” Brett Meiselas tweeted in March.
On its website, MeidasTouch says it is “staffed solely” by the Meiselas brothers “with the primary goals of protecting American democracy, defeating Trumpism, and holding Republicans accountable.” And they were going to meet those lofty goals by building a massive online grassroots movement. “We just built up trust and we’re very transparent about who we are,” Brett Meiselas told Rolling Stone. “And we’re able to connect to people on a personal level because they knew who was actually behind it.” MeidasTouch says it holds regular, nothing-off-limits meetings with donors to take their feedback and questions on spending.
But MeidasTouch’s financial structure leaves room for third parties to receive undisclosed payments, a setup that Noti, the former top FEC lawyer, says thwarts transparency and violates campaign-finance law. A similar structure, involving far bigger sums, landed the Trump campaign in legal trouble.
At the heart of MeidasTouch’s opaque finances is an arrangement with a Virginia company called Prestige WW Inc. — a reference to the Will Ferrell comedy Step Brothers. Prestige received more than half a million dollars of Meidas’ donor money, FEC filings show. Prestige is run by Adam Parkhomenko, Meidas’ political strategist and a former aide to Hillary Clinton who later did political work for Michael Avenatti, a onetime anti-Trump hero who was convicted last year of trying to extort $20 million from Nike. (One of Ben Meiselas’ law partners, who was a witness to the events at the center of the extortion scheme, was subpoenaed in Avenatti’s criminal case in Manhattan, and Ben Meiselas is listed as an interested party in the case, as is Nike. According to Meiselas, he was listed as a result of being a managing partner in his firm at the time of the subpoena to his law partner. Rolling Stone is not aware of any facts suggesting that Nike, Meiselas, or his partner were implicated in any of the alleged wrongdoing.)
While Parkhomenko frequently promoted MeidasTouch on social media, his work for the Super PAC was not made clear until Rolling Stone started asking questions. Prestige WW has no public-facing website. Its owner could only be identified through a search of Virginia state corporate filings. Unlike MeidasTouch, Parkhomenko’s Prestige WW, as a private entity, isn’t required to disclose its spending.
Rolling Stone found no suggestion that any of the brothers are getting rich off of the PAC. Indeed, Ben Meiselas often points out that he works for free for MeidasTouch. However, in the course of reporting, Rolling Stone learned that Prestige has an unusual financial relationship with Brett Meiselas. In December, Brett said he was being paid for his work producing videos for the Super PAC and later volunteered that the payments were coming through Prestige. Brett, who holds legal authority for MeidasTouch as its treasurer, is being paid as a consultant to his own Super PAC’s consultant — an arrangement that Noti says flies in the face of transparency requirements mandated by federal law.
“That’s not OK,” says Noti. “If the PAC is paying the company just as a pass-through for the money to get to its treasurer or to some fundraising company or whatever, what they need to be disclosing are the ultimate payments to those recipients. And there are rules on the books that require that. The FEC has been derelict in enforcing them because the FEC is derelict in enforcing everything. But there are laws on the books that say you can’t do that.”
MeidasTouch says the arrangement gave Brett the option of securing health care because he gave up his career to work full time for the Super PAC. MeidasTouch explains it hired Parkhomenko to take care of, among other things, the administrative operations of a rapidly expanding Super PAC. “Prestige WW allowed MT to integrate its own infrastructure and resources within Prestige to keep costs extremely low,” MeidasTouch wrote in a response to Rolling Stone’s inquiries. The group says its total payments to Prestige of nearly $550,000 represent an “all-in” cost of operation and covers MeidasTouch’s compliance and health care costs. MeidasTouch says it hired an outside lawyer with FEC expertise to ensure “full compliance with its obligations and disclosures.”
But the payment structure, Noti points out, is similar to an arrangement the Trump campaign used, albeit on a much larger scale. Nearly $170 million in Trump campaign spending was allegedly funneled through firms headed by former campaign manager Brad Parscale, among others, according to an FEC complaint filed by the Campaign Legal Center. (At the time, MeidasTouch tweeted out its own blog post about the complaint. “The Trump campaign’s spending practices have the practical effect of masking payments — in violation of federal campaign-transparency rules — to various advertising contractors and senior Trump campaign staff and family members, including Lara Trump,” Meidas wrote in its post, quoting Business Insider.) The Trump case is pending before the FEC.
Despite MeidasTouch’s claims of transparency, inquiries about some of its spending were met with attacks and legal threats. The group says it paid Crossroads Campaigns, a Washington, D.C., consulting firm, $150,000 to knock on 30,000 doors in Georgia during the state’s two Senate runoff elections. That works out to $5 per door, a figure that MeidasTouch attributes to paying canvassers $15 per hour and providing them with personal protective equipment.
But in Wisconsin, where a consultant for another campaign also paid $15 per hour and had a doctor on staff and conducted hundreds of Covid tests for canvassers, it cost $2.75 per door to knock on 300,000 doors. In an email obtained by Rolling Stone, Crossroads’ founder, John Miyasato, quoted $1.10-$1.25 as a per-door figure for a similar door-knocking operation in a Southern state several years ago. The larger the operation, the lower the per-dollar cost, but a national Democratic field director who has worked with Meidas consultants and run canvassing efforts says the $5 per door was still too expensive. The only way he could imagine it getting that high was if management increased its fees. That appears to be “just profit taking,” the field director tells Rolling Stone.
Crossroads says it “has every reason to believe they did an outstanding job and provided Meidas an excellent value” in Georgia, saying the door-knocking campaign was performed in four Republican exurban counties where the houses were farther apart. The firm asserted the $5-per-door cost was relatively low, saying competing companies would likely have charged $7 to $9 per door. Crossroads declined to provide a breakdown of its expenses, saying through a lawyer it had a “sterling reputation in the field and in the progressive movement,” and threatened to sue Rolling Stone if the magazine implied it had overcharged.
After Rolling Stone reached out to Crossroads with these questions, MeidasTouch accused the publication of harassing its vendors.
MeidasTouch is correct in pointing out the dangers President Trump poses to democracy, and undeniably effective in spreading that message to its social media followers. But being on the right side of the Trump fight does not make an organization above scrutiny. And when MeidasTouch faced questions about how it used the $5 million donors entrusted it with to beat Trump, its response was straight out of the Trump playbook.
Trump threatened lawsuits when The Washington Post and other news organizations scrutinized his business dealings. He mocked and belittled journalists who wrote stories he didn’t like. He said he was being persecuted by a dishonest media. He accused journalists of interfering in his companies by reaching out to business partners. He told supporters that they were under attack as well. He said a newspaper owner was out to get him. And he told supporters that to help defend against these attacks he needed donations.
When Rolling Stone scrutinized MeidasTouch about its business, its founders threatened to sue over a story that had not yet been published. A ceaseless barrage of misinformation followed, with MeidasTouch rallying its legions of social media followers to join the campaign.
Meidas attacked and insulted the reporter, calling him a “coward” for declining to go on its podcast prepublication, as well as accusing him of being “slime,” a “tabloid hack,” and one of Trump’s “puppets.” (Editor’s note: Hettena is the author of a book titled Trump/Russia: A Definitive History.)
The Meiselas brothers said they were the ones being harassed, and MeidasTouch accused Rolling Stone of attempting “to damage the relationships that power our operation,” and harm them financially when it reported on their business relationships. “We will not be threatened by these mob-style tactics and will continue to keep you up-to-date,” the group tweeted.
The group told supporters that the reporting on MeidasTouch was an assault on them. “The MeidasMighty is a movement. You attack the movement, you attack us all. There is not a more enthusiastic and passionate force in politics today in America than the Mighty,” Ben Meiselas tweeted April 1st.
MeidasTouch’s founders claimed that the magazine was out to get them and that its corporate ownership was using Rolling Stone to push a pro-Trump agenda and attack Trump’s critics. Rolling Stone has written hundreds of articles holding Trump to account for his failures, and in October, its editorial staff endorsed Joe Biden. (Nobody outside Rolling Stone’s editorial process had any knowledge of this story before MeidasTouch made legal threats about it.)
And Meidas told its followers that to help defend against these attacks, it needed their support in campaign dollars. “We will not be bullied,” it tweeted on March 30th with a donation link. “Chip in $3.50 now to keep us going.”