Wall Street billionaire is putting millions into Kentucky’s race for governor

by Tom Loftus, Kentucky Lantern

FRANKFORT – A Wall Street billionaire and crusader for charter schools is bankrolling media attacks on Democratic incumbent Andy Beshear in Kentucky’s race for governor.

Jeff Yass, an options trader based in the Philadelphia suburbs, has provided the overwhelming majority of the money to two conservative super PACs that are behind a new multimillion dollar advertising campaign aimed at electing Beshear’s Republican challenger Daniel Cameron, the state’s attorney general. 

Digital ads released last week blame Beshear for the bungled opening day of school in Louisville, when a driver shortage and new transportation routing system stranded children on buses for hours.

Since 2015 Yass has been a generous supporter of Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, and a super PAC linked to Paul called Protect Freedom is one PAC sponsoring the new ad campaign in the governor’s race. The other sponsor is a super PAC called School Freedom Fund.

On June 8, Yass contributed $3 million to Protect Freedom PAC, according to its most recent report to the Federal Election Commission.

Yass’ contribution amounted to 99.9% of the total contributions taken in by Protect Freedom in the first six months of this year, its report shows.

And it brought to $17,898,000 the amount that Yass has contributed to Protect Freedom since it was formed in 2017. A review of Protect Freedom’s filings with the FEC by Kentucky Lantern shows that since the beginning of 2022 it has gotten 99% of its contributions from Yass or Yass-funded PACs, and since its formation in 2017 has received about 73% of its contributions from Yass and Yass-supported PACs.

School Freedom Fund is also almost entirely funded by Yass. Since it was formed in late 2021, Yass has contributed $15 million to School Freedom Fund – about 92% of all the contributions that School Freedom Fund has ever collected, FEC records show.

In response to the digital ads linking Beshear to Louisville’s botched first day of school, the Kentucky Democratic Party issued a press release citing the super PAC ads as evidence that Cameron supports vouchers for private schools, saying that was something Cameron “didn’t seem to want to talk about … when he released his education plan this week.”

The Lexington Herald-Leader on Friday first reported that, according to a Protect Freedom spokesperson, the group was working with School Freedom on a combined $5 million digital, television, mail and get out the vote advertising program in Kentucky.

Michael Biundo, executive director of Protect Freedom PAC, said in an email response to questions from Kentucky Lantern, “Gov. Beshear has a record of failure on lockdowns, Covid, the economy, and crime. Kentucky is more conservative than he governs; it’s time for a conservative reformer as governor that will pass popular initiatives like school choice.”

Who is Jeff Yass?

According to numerous media outlets in Pennsylvania, Yass is a registered Libertarian who jealously guards his privacy. He is worth $32.9 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaire’s Index, making him the wealthiest man in Pennsylvania.

Yass is the founder of Susquehanna International Group, or SIG, which is a Philadelphia-area company that Bloomberg says “makes markets in financial products and asset classes with a focus on derivatives. It also invests in private equity and venture capital.”

Forbes has reported that the most valuable holding of SIG is its investment in ByteDance, the Chinese parent company of TikTok. 

Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul
 Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul. (Photo by Jim Lo Scalzo-Pool/Getty Images)

(Late last March Paul broke ranks with most of his fellow Republicans and blocked a bill in the Senate that would have swiftly banned TikTok for national security reasons. But Paul said those concerns do not justify what he said would be a violation of free speech. “I think we should beware of those who use fear to coax Americans to relinquish our liberties,” Paul said in a Reuters news report of the debate. Paul has said in news reports that his opposition to the TikTok ban has nothing to do with his backing from Yass. “My decisions are not based on any kind of donations. My decisions are based on the Constitution and the First Amendment,” he told The Courier-Journal in March.) 

Kentucky Lantern sent an email to SIG’s media office asking questions about Yass’ relationship with Paul. The SIG media office did not reply. Protect Freedom said in an email to the Lantern that Yass played no role in the PAC’s decision to get involved in the Kentucky governor’s race. 

Yass is a relative newcomer to the top ranks of political mega donors. The first seven-figure political donation he ever made to a federal political committee (registered with the FEC) was a $1 million contribution in June of 2015 to an earlier Paul super PAC called America’s Liberty PAC.

Yass and his wife Janine Yass have been passionate supporters of what they call school choice in Pennsylvania and on the national scene. Advocates for public schools warn that the “choice” movement would siphon public dollars away from public schools and into private hands through privatization.

In May of 2021 radio-station WHYY, the Philadelphia affiliate of National Public Radio, reported Yass was “single handedly” keeping school choice PACs in that state flush with “tens of millions of dollars” in contributions.

 Screenshot of Yass-funded digital ad attacking Beshear for Louisville schools’ transportation problems.

As for the School Freedom Fund, the opening paragraph of its website says this: “COVID school shutdowns have made parents and the public aware of countless abuses of power by education bureaucrats seeking self-preservation over student education. By repeatedly impeding our children’s learning these individuals have hindered the development and education of our youth through school closures, mask mandates, critical race theory, and more. This creates a unique opportunity to promote School Choice as the structural solution to dramatically improve education in America.”

Yass is one of the largest political donors in the country, and Protect Freedom PAC and School Freedom are just two of the network of super PACs he supports.

The largest share of his donations at the federal level go to the super PAC Club for Growth Action, a group that advocates for lower taxes that gets most of its contributions from two people — Yass and fellow mega donor Richard Uihlein, of Illinois.

Yass has given $61 million to Club for Growth Action since 2015, including $10 million in June on the day before he gave $3 million to Protect Freedom, according to the website Political MoneyLine.

Is Protect Freedom affiliated with Paul?

Both Biundo and Paul spokeswoman Kelsey Cooper said in emails that Paul is not involved in directing Protect Freedom.

“Dr. Paul has no role in Protect Freedom PAC. It exists to help other candidates, not him,” Cooper said.

Biundo said, that Protect Freedom “supports people who fight for liberty like Rand Paul, but is not affiliated with him or directed by him.”

Yet, the Protect Freedom PAC website prominently displays a photo of just one elected official – Rand Paul. And it described itself as “a Rand Paul affiliated super PAC” in many of its own press releases. In one press release from 2020 Protect Freedom PAC says it is “an organization set up to support current and future allies of U.S. Sen. Rand Paul.”

 Screenshot from Protect Freedom PAC website.

And its chief strategists and consultants – including Biundo – are veterans of past Paul campaigns.

Yass has been — by far —  the major donor to committees linked to Paul since June of 2015 when he gave $2,250,000 to super PACs supporting Paul’s ill-fated presidential campaign.

Starting with those contributions and continuing through the June $3 million donation to Protect Freedom, Yass has contributed $26,979,200 to Rand Paul political committees, according to Kentucky Lantern’s analysis of records posted on the FEC website.

Protect Freedom has used the money to run independent advertising campaigns to elect conservative candidates across the country since 2018.

Of the nine races where it spent the most money in 2022, Protect Freedom-backed candidates won only three, according to FEC records.

Its winners were Harriet Hageman, who beat Liz Cheney in the Republican primary for U.S. House in Wyoming, and U.S. Senate candidates Mike Lee, of Utah, and Ron Johnson, of Wisconsin.

Candidates backed strongly by Protect Freedom who lost last year were: Blake Masters, a Senate candidate from Arizona; Jeremy Munson, a House candidate in Minnesota; Nathan Dahm, a Senate candidate in Oklahoma; Sarah Palin, a House candidate in Alaska; Ronald Hood, a House candidate in Ohio; and Anthony Sabatini, a House candidate in Florida.)

Jeff Yass contributions to Rand Paul political committees

June 8, 2023                  Protect Freedom                          $3,000,000                          

Sept. 23, 2022                Protect Freedom                          $2,500,000

May 11, 2022                  Protect Freedom                          $100,000*

May 9, 2022                   Protect Freedom                          $100,000*       

April 28, 2022                Protect Freedom                          $500,000*

April 19, 2022                 Protect Freedom                          $2,000,000                          

March 23, 2021              Kentucky Freedom                      $5,000,000

Nov. 10, 2020                 Protect Freedom                          $2,500,000  

September 1, 2020        Protect Freedom                          $1,000,000

July 29, 2020                  Protect Freedom                          $500,000

July 15, 2020                   Protect Freedom                          $1,000,000

June 15, 2020                 Protect Freedom                          $500,000

March 30, 2020             RAND PAC                                    $10,000**

March 30, 2020             Rand Paul for Senate                  $ 11,200**

Feb. 24 2020                  Protect Freedom                          $1,000,000

Dec. 30, 2019                 RAND PAC                                    $10,000**

June 14, 2019                 Protect Freedom                          $2,098,000

Dec. 30, 2018                 RAND PAC                                    $10,000**

Oct. 22, 2018                  Protect Freedom                          $400,000

Oct. 4, 2018                     Protect Freedom                          $400,000

June 1, 2018                    America’s Liberty                        $150,000

April 13, 2018                 America’s Liberty                         $10,000

Oct. 26, 2017                  Protect Freedom                          $1,000,000

Oct. 19, 2017                  America’s Liberty                         $100,000

June 29, 2017                America’s Liberty                         $80,000

May 24, 2017                 America’s Liberty                         $50,000

Feb. 21, 2017                  America’s Liberty                         $50,000

Sept. 30, 2016               America’s Liberty                         $100,000

Dec. 10, 2015                 America’s Liberty                         $250,000

Nov. 23, 2015                 America’s Liberty                         $100,000

Oct. 30, 2015                  America’s Liberty                         $100,000

Oct. 8, 2015                    America’s Liberty                         $100,000          

June, 25, 2015                Purple PAC                                    $1,000,000          

June 22, 2015                 Concerned American Voters      $250,000

June 19, 2015                 America’s Liberty                         $1,000,000          

TOTAL                                                                                       $26,979,200

*These contributions were made by School Freedom, a super PAC nearly totally funded by Jeff Yass.

**Half of these contributions were made by Yass, and half by Yass’ wife Janine Yass.

Top photo: From left, Gov. Andy Besher, master of ceremonies David Beck and Attorney General Daniel Cameron on stage at the Fancy Farm Picnic, Aug. 5, 2023. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Austin Anthony)