Attack ad funder revealed as Senate race erupts over NRA

S. Donald Sussman, a connected donor, paid for anti-Van Hollen attack ad.

A well-connected hedge fund manager is behind a new Senate ad attacking Rep. Chris Van Hollen, according to disclosure reports filed Thursday — the latest development in a widening controversy in the high-profile race.

S. Donald Sussman, a Maine resident and political contributor, gave $600,000 to a super PAC in April that paid for the ad, the filings show. A group associated with Emily's List, a Washington-based organization that backs Democratic women, also contributed.

The revelation came on a day when a number of Democrats — including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi — joined the White House in decrying the ad.

Van Hollen and Rep. Donna F. Edwards are running in a competitive race for the seat that will be left open next year by retiring Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski. The race has been testy for months, but the tenor has grown more intense and has only recently spilled onto television screens.

"Congresswoman Edwards and the super PAC supporting her are engaging in politics at its very worst," Reid, who endorsed Van Hollen early in the race, said in a statement.

Van Hollen's record of supporting gun control is well-documented. The issue raised by Edwards and the Sussman-backed super PAC — called Working for US — centers on a campaign finance reform effort in 2010 led by Van Hollen. To build support for the bill, House leaders included an exemption of its reporting requirements for the National Rifle Association and other groups.

Edwards has argued they caved to the gun lobby.

Van Hollen has pointed to his record on the issue and has noted that the vast majority of House Democrats, including many liberals and members of the Congressional Black Caucus, supported the bill.

The message in the super PAC's ad was consistent with one Edwards has been making for months, with one exception: It included an image of President Barack Obama recalling the deaths in the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The ad suggests Obama opposed Van Hollen's bill. In fact, the White House backed it.

A White House official called on Working for US to take down the ad this week. Instead, the group agreed to remove Obama from the ad.

Sussman is a major donor to Women Vote! — a group tied to Emily's List, which has been airing more benign ads in Maryland on behalf of Edwards for months. Women Vote! also contributed $500,000 to Working for US in mid-March, though the new filings show most of that money was spent on get-out-the-vote activities in Maryland.

Van Hollen's campaign found irony in the fact that the ad was paid for a hedge fund manager. The Edwards campaign has said for months that Van Hollen is too cozy with Wall Street.

"Chris Van Hollen has been leading the fight to close the loophole that lets hedge fund managers pay less in taxes than working people," Van Hollen spokeswoman Bridgett Frey said. "That she claims to take on Wall Street is clearly the height of hypocrisy."

Sussman could not be reached for comment. A spokesman for Working for US said the group will continue to air the ad.

"The feedback has been fantastic, because they know Donna Edwards isn't a typical D.C. insider who compromises her values and cuts watered-down deals," the spokesman, Joshua Henne, said in a statement.

Van Hollen began airing a new advertisement, responding to the original attack and noting the White House involvement. The narrator of Van Hollen's ad suggests the Obama administration pushed back on Edwards. In fact, the administration's statement was limited to the super PAC.

Super PACs are required to operate without coordination from the campaign.

"I am disappointed that my opponent is now using the president's image in his own ad … with misleading language that attacks my character, about a mistake that was not made by my campaign," Edwards said in a statement.

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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