When Dems Are in Trouble, They Call Marc Elias

Elias was hired gun brought in to save Dem chances in Kansas Senate election

Marc Elias / AP
October 13, 2014

When Democratic campaigns across the country have major problems, their go-to fixer is super-lawyer Marc Elias.

Elias chairs the political law practice for Washington, D.C., law firm Perkins Coie, and he has been involved in nearly every legal question the Democrats have had this cycle.

The firm was founded by attorney Bob Bauer, who has been a close legal adviser to President Barack Obama ever since he decided to run for Senate in 2005. Bauer was the chief counsel for the Obama White House from Jan. 2010 to Jun. 2011.

While Bauer was at the White House, Elias took the reins of the law firm’s political practice. Now he has become a key player for Democrats who find themselves in need of urgent legal help.

"There is no Democratic-side campaign finance lawyer who is more important than Marc Elias," Robert Lenhard, a former Federal Election Commission (FEC) chairman, told Politico. "That is without a doubt."

The most powerful Democrats across the country, including Sen. Harry Reid (D., Nev.) and his Senate Majority PAC, have turned to Elias in times of need.

This cycle Elias has been a busy man, representing multiple candidates in key elections that Democrats must win to keep control of the Senate.

Elias' most important fight so far has been in Kansas, where he "spearheaded" the legal fight to get Democrat Chad Taylor off the ballot in Kansas, clearing the way for Greg Orman, the liberal candidate who is running as an independent. Just a week before the case went to trial, Elias petitioned the Supreme Court of Kansas to get permission to practice in the state for just the one case.

Republicans in Kansas point to Elias’ presence in the Kansas fight as proof that the move was made by national Democrats. They referred to Elias as "Harry Reid and Barack Obama’s personal political attorney," and said that his involvement makes clear that the "Democrat bosses controlled this decision."

Republicans pointed out that Orman hired from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee for his campaign, arguing that it was proof that the national Democrats are behind his candidacy. Elias’ firm happens to also represent the DSCC.

A spokesman for the legal team said that despite the DSCC being a client of Elias, he was not representing it in the Kansas case.

His work in support of Orman ties the independent candidate to Senate Democrats across the country, many of whom have found themselves in need of Elias' services this year.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D., La.), for example, brought in Elias to handle the storm that arose when it became clear that Senate funds were used to pay for private charter flights, including for campaign events.

Elias conducted a full review of Landrieu’s travel expenses, and wrote a letter to the Senate Ethics Committee assuring it that all future taxpayer-funded charter flights would be "cleared in advance by counsel."

Elias’ review resulted in Landrieu reimbursing the federal government $33,727.

He was also the lawyer brought in by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D., Mo.) when she was accused of improperly using government funds to pay for charter flights, and wound up returning $88,000 to the Treasury Department.

Elias was also the lawyer brought in by Sen. Kay Hagan (D., N.C.) when it became clear that her husband received hundreds of thousands worth of federal stimulus money.

"[Hagan’s] only involvement [with the stimulus grants] was when she made sure that a respected ethics attorney was consulted to ensure that it was appropriate, and the attorney found that it was," said Hagan’s spokeswoman Sadie Weiner.

Kentucky Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes’s brought in Elias when it was revealed that she was using vehicles, including a luxurious tour bus, that were owned by her father’s catering company explicitly for her campaign.

Elias issued a statement in response to the Politico report that Grimes was violating campaign finance laws, and argued that the bus was being rented from her father’s company at "normal and usual" rates and therefore the campaign was in compliance with all laws.

Reid turned to Elias earlier this year when it was revealed that his campaign directed $31,000 to his granddaughter and wrote it off on filings as "holiday gifts."

Elias employed what was described as a "rope-a-dope" strategy to the FEC inquiry, sending back a response that contained little to no additional information beyond the "holiday gift" description. The strategy got the FEC off the campaigns back for enough time for Reid to reimburse the money and settle the issue.

Harry Reid’s Senate Majority PAC has already paid Elias’ firm Perkins Coie $310,740 for its services this cycle, according to campaign filings compiled by CQ Moneyline. Reid’s Searchlight Fund and Nevada Fund have directed an additional $78,061 to the firm.

Elias was even used by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) to officially disavow the Ready for Warren Super PAC.

"The senator has not, and does not, explicitly or implicitly, authorize, endorse, or otherwise approve of the organization's formation or activities," Elias said in the letter to the FEC. The letter adds that Warren hopes "this organization will focus its attention and energy on maintaining Democratic control of the U.S. Senate and not confuse donors about a non-existent run for president."

His involvement in Democratic campaign activities across the country is no surprise, as Elias has long been the legal mind that guides Democrats through troubled waters.

He is filing lawsuits in states across the country as an attorney for the National Democratic Redistricting Trust, including a lawsuit in Virginia that accuses Republicans of "racial gerrymandering."

He represented John Kerry in 2004, and led the unsuccessful fight to get ads run by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth taken off the air.

Elias also was brought in to be the lawyer representing Al Franken for a recount in Minnesota’s Senate election in 2008. Critics say Elias convinced "inexperienced election officials" to disregard Minnesota’s election laws during the recount.

After months spent in the courtroom by Elias, Franken ended up winning by just over 300 votes.

Elias told Politico that he sees himself as "a lawyer first and a Democrat second." He added that political law "is always interesting and usually rewarding."

So far this cycle, the firm has taken in $951,441 from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and $825,576 from the DNC. Various clients ranging from Super PACs such as Tom Steyer’s Nextgen Climate Action to Democratic candidates for both the Senate and House have brought millions to the firm in 2014 alone.

The firm’s employees have made nearly $120,000 in political contributions so far this cycle, and nearly all have gone to Democratic candidates.

The public relations office at Perkins Coie said that Elias was unavailable to comment on his role in this year’s elections.