The Owners of the Democrats’ Big Data Firm Have a Side Gig: Working to Elect Far-Right Republicans
Fight disinformation. Get a daily recap of the facts that matter. Sign up for the free Mother Jones newsletter.In US politics, data has become king. Firms that collect, analyze, enhance, and sell voter data—the information candidates and campaigns crave so they can effectively target voters—have achieved top-dog status in the elections industry. And one of the most important data outfits on the Democratic side—and, consequently, one of the more influential players in politics today—is a for-profit company that few Democratic voters, grassroots activists, or cable news junkies have ever head of: TargetSmart. It provides crucial services to the Democratic National Committee, state Democratic parties, and a wide assortment of progressive outfits and makes millions of dollars a year. On its website, the firm has posted a significant declaration: It “has always focused on the Democratic Party, Democratic candidates, and progressive organizations” and “does not work with Republican candidates.” But a Mother Jones investigation found that the owners and founders of TargetSmart also own a company that earns millions by helping to elect Republicans, including far-right GOP state legislators who have tried to overturn the 2020 election results, who were involved in the January 6 march on the US Capitol that turned into a seditious riot, and who have been part of the Republican crusade to skew election laws against the Democrats.
That is, the parent company of this vital Democratic data firm is profiting by aiding conservative and authoritarian political forces that seek to defeat the Democrats and progressives supported by TargetSmart.
The involvement of TargetSmart’s owners in electing right-wing Republicans has remained unknown among the political professionals within Democratic and progressive campaign circles. Informed about this, a former technology specialist for the Democrats says, “This is not a good look for TargetSmart.” And a union official notes, “This is pretty damning…In the world [TargetSmart] occupies, it couldn’t be much worse. A lot of Democratic consulting firms do work for corporations that don’t always support Democrats or progressives. But to have a sister company working on behalf of Republicans is not good for its standing.” Several Democratic data operatives point out that given the value of data these days—and the sensitivity about its usages—Democrats and progressives could be wary of retaining a data firm with a direct corporate link to a company aiding Republican candidates, even if TargetSmart is operationally distinct from the other firm. One Democratic strategist puts it this way: Because TargetSmart has so much “control over the crown jewels of the party—its data—to have have a sister company that pals around with insurrectionists is alarming.”
“TargetSmart is separate from and run independently of the other companies controlled by its owners,” a TargetSmart spokesperson says. He adds, “TargetSmart’s service agreement with clients is very clear: we do not allow our data to be used by any organization that is affiliated with the Republican Party.”
In a statement to Mother Jones, TargetSmart CEO Tom Bonier says, “TargetSmart is proud to be the leading data provider to Democratic parties and progressive organizations. In recent years, TargetSmart has been able to invest roughly $20 million back into the progressive data infrastructure. Historically many political firms grow in even years and contract in odd years. We’re changed the model by building a company that’s grown year-after-year while staying true to our progressive values.”
Asked about TargetSmart’s owners controlling a firm that assists Republican candidates, a spokesperson for the Democratic National Committee says, “We buy data from [TargetSmart] as we do from numerous other organizations.” He declined to discuss the matter further.
TargetSmart boasts that its database contains information on 249 million voters and potential voters. That’s almost every adult in the country. With all this data, it helps candidates and independent groups build lists for voter-contact efforts and operate digital advertising campaigns. It also offers polling, communications, modeling, strategic consulting, and data enhancement services.
The company does business across the Democratic and liberal field. During the 2020 campaign, TargetSmart billed the Democratic National Committee more than $3 million. It also worked for Andrew Yang’s presidential campaign, Stacey Abrams’ Fair Fight PAC, Tom Steyer’s NextGen Climate Action, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the United Auto Workers, EMILY’s List, and Priorities USA Action, a key Democratic super-PAC, as well as other Democratic and progressive outfits. TargetSmart estimates it has about a 70 percent market share for data services for progressive nonprofits. “There is no private company that’s more important to the Democrats,” says the technology specialist, “and TargetSmart will do its best to remind you of this in every conversation.”
According to former Democratic officials, TargetSmart plays an especially crucial role for Democrats by working with both the DNC and Democratic state parties to develop data files that are vital for voter-contact programs. This is how it works: State parties collect public voter registration data from local governments and share that data with the DNC. The DNC pays TargetSmart to clean and augment this information. It might add a missing email address or phone number to an individual voter file. “We work to keep the data clean and track individual voters over time,“ Bonier explains. “If someone moves, we know how they used to vote and where they used to vote. Data can get pretty dirty very quickly. We keep it up to date.” The DNC then provides the improved data to Democratic presidential campaigns and party committees trying to elect Democratic members of Congress. (Neither the state parties nor the DNC share proprietary data—such as a voter’s candidate preference—with TargetSmart.)
Meanwhile, TargetSmart has a lucrative deal with the state parties that allows it to sell voter files it has cleaned and enhanced through a separate process to third parties ideologically aligned with the Democrats—say, a union or environmental group—and the state parties receive a cut of these fees. This has been an important source of revenue for the state parties for nearly a decade. With this financial arrangement, TargetSmart has forged strong ties to the state parties. “There’s an incestuous relationship between the state parties and TargetSmart,” says one former Democratic official.
TargetSmart is owned by a holding company called the TARA Group, which itself is owned by Jeffrey Ferguson and Drew Brighton, two of the four original founders of TargetSmart, according to corporate, lobbying, and campaign finance records and sources familiar with the companies. Ferguson spent many years working for Democratic senators and various Democratic Party organizations before TargetSmart was launched in 2006, and Brighton worked at Acxiom, a database marketing company, prior to that. In 2008, TargetSmart did data modeling for the Barack Obama campaign. In 2011, it won a bid to provide data services to the DNC and started this work in 2012.
The TARA Group also owns three other firms: American Strategies, Real Strategies, and Access Marketing Services. These three companies and TargetSmart share administrative, financial, and human resources services provided by the TARA Group. But Ferguson insists, “Each company makes its own decisions on who it works with and how it conducts its own business, independent of each other.”
Access Marketing Services bills itself as a “marketing firm built on big data” that uses polling, data, and analytics to “build highly targeted campaigns across direct mail, TV, phone, radio, and digital media.” The firm says it has been hired for 1,028 candidate campaigns—and that includes campaigns that elect Republican office seekers.
Access Marketing Services was created by Ferguson and Brighton in 2017. They made Greg Adams, who had previously worked at TargetSmart for 15 years, its CEO, according to his LinkedIn profile. Earlier, Adams had been a systems administrator at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. (He did not respond to a request for comment.) And a top client of Access Marketing for years has been the National Association of Realtors, a trade association that promotes the interests of the real estate industry—and that has a political arm that tends to support Republicans more than Democrats. In 2020, the NAR’s political action committee directly contributed about $4 million to congressional candidates, split almost evenly between Democrats and Republicans. (Ninety percent of these contributions went to incumbents.) But the big money the Realtors dropped into federal elections in that cycle was $20 million in independent expenditures to boost their favored candidates, and nearly $15 million of that financed activity to assist Republicans.
Campaign finance records in several states show that Access Marketing Services has developed a remunerative relationship with the political branches of the NAR and its state affiliates, often by helping the Realtors elect Republican state officials, including controversial GOP candidates who Democrats and progressives consider significant political enemies.
In the 2018 gubernatorial race in Georgia, according to state campaign finance records, Access Marketing Services collected $130,000 from the National Association of Realtors Fund to produce online ads and direct mail pieces supporting Brian Kemp, then the Republican secretary of state, who was accused by Democrats of brazen voter suppression. This was when Kemp, a conservative Republican, was running against Stacey Abrams, a former minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives. During that election, the NAR Fund also paid Access Marketing more than $400,000 to assist 11 candidates for Senate and House seats in the Georgia legislature. All were Republicans. One of them, Meagan Hanson, who describes herself as a conservative activist, is now running to unseat US Rep. Lucy McBath, a Democrat.
Lauren Groh-Wargo, the head of Fair Fight Action, which Abrams founded, speaks highly of TargetSmart and Bonier and their work in Georgia. “I don’t know about its holding company and its corporate governance,” she says. “TargetSmart has been an incredibly trustworthy asset for Democratic campaigns and progressive activists.” She recalls that in 2014, when she and Abrams were running a voter registration program in Georgia that was being challenged and undermined by Kemp, Bonier, and TargetSmart offered critical support, particularly with analysis of voter registration data. “They were not afraid of getting into a fight with Kemp,” she recalls. This means that the TARA Group and its owners have been aiding each side of the fierce political warfare in Georgia, with TargetSmart assisting Abrams’ project, and Access Marketing Services striving to elect Kemp.
Arizona has been another profitable state for Access Marketing Services. Since 2017, the firm has earned more than half a million dollars from the National Association of Realtors Fund and its Arizona affiliate for assisting 14 state legislature candidates. All but two were Republicans.
Several of the Arizona Republicans aided by Access Marketing Services championed Trump’s Big Lie that he lost the election due to massive fraud. Anthony Kern, who failed in his state representative reelection bid in 2020, has been a Stop the Steal advocate who attended the January 6 riot at the Capitol. While in office, Kern signed a resolution backed by Republican legislators that urged the US Congress to reject Arizona’s electoral votes for Joe Biden and accept “alternate” votes for Trump. (In a bizarre move, Kern, who had been a Trump elector, ended up this past spring working as a ballot inspector during the sham review of Arizona’s vote count—and was eventually removed from that position.) Other Republicans aided by Access Marketing—state Reps. David Cook and Bret Roberts—also signed this resolution. Roberts has promoted legislation to make it harder to register to vote.
The list of Arizona Republicans supported by Access Marketing Services on the Realtors’ dime also includes Rep. Mark Finchem, another leader of the Stop the Steal effort in the Grand Canyon state and a backer of that overturn-the-election resolution. Moreover, according to Reuters, Finchem “has expressed views linked to the QAnon conspiracy theory, which casts Trump as a savior figure and elite Democrats as a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles and cannibals.” (Finchem was scheduled to be a “special guest” speaker at a QAnon-related conference in Las Vegas in late October.) Finchem spoke at a Stop the Steal warmup rally in Washington, DC, the day before the attack on Congress, and he participated in the march on Capitol Hill. In a tweet on January 6, he seemingly supported the rioters who assaulted the building. He’s now running to be secretary of state in Arizona and has been endorsed by Trump. State Rep. Shawnna Bolick, another Republican helped by Access Marketing, also supported the resolution to reverse Arizona’s election results, and she has proposed a law that would allow the state legislature, now controlled by the GOP, to overrule the secretary of state’s certification of voting results. She, too, has entered the race for Arizona secretary of state.
In Texas, it’s a similar story. During the 2020 campaign, the National Association of Realtors’ state affiliate, the Texas Realtors Political Action Committee, paid Access Marketing Services over $670,000 for work on 12 state legislative campaigns. Eleven of these candidates were Republicans. Eight of them went on to co-sponsor HB6, the Texas voting bill that was roundly denounced by Democrats as a measure designed to suppress voting in the Lone Star state. It was passed in August. These eight Republicans also voted for the controversial state law that banned abortions after six weeks and allowed private citizens to file lawsuits against abortion providers and people who help facilitate abortions.
Ferguson says, “None of the TARA Group companies do any direct work for Republican candidates or organizations.” For its endeavors in Georgia, Arizona, Texas, and other states that promote Republican candidates, Access Marketing Services was paid by the Realtors, not the GOP contenders or any Republican Party group.
One Democratic strategist notes that news of Ferguson and Brighton’s ownership of Access Marketing Services will likely trouble some Democratic officials and progressive organizations. “Brighton and Ferguson are part of TargetSmart,” he says.”They are not an anonymous company that bought up an existing consulting firm. They are part of the Democratic ecosystem. You can hold them responsible for what they have at the holding company level. With their ties to the Democratic Party, they should think twice about their other connections [to GOP candidates].” He adds, “TargetSmart is frequently a good partner. That’s why it’s surprising, given their place in the Democratic and progressive world, that the same people are being enriched by work being done on the other side of the aisle.”
Responding to this criticism, Brighton says, “Access Marketing Services, Real Strategies, and American Strategies work with bipartisan membership and trade groups whose endorsements are sought by Democrats and Republicans alike. Anyone who thinks those clients are outside the mainstream needs to spend more time outside the Beltway.”
Like Access Marketing Services, American Strategies and Real Strategies are on the payroll of the realtors and provide services related to membership and issue campaigns. Real Strategies says that it “has worked with the National Association of REALTORS for over 16 years and supported state and local REALTOR associations on hundreds of campaigns each year.” It has partnered with the NAR to develop a program that offers consulting services to other associations. Promotional material for this project says that the realtors’ association “leverages” the expertise of Target Smart and Real Strategies. On their websites, both American Strategies and TargetSmart note they have conducted research and polling for the NAR and its affiliates on smart growth and land use issues.
Several Democratic data experts wonder if the state parties will be upset to learn that TargetSmart’s owners also have a firm that works to elect Republicans. They say there is a widespread recognition that vendors for the party often must do other work—some commercial data firms have sold data to both Democratic and Republican campaigns, with both sides aware of this—but they note that this particular and previously unknown corporate arrangement could affect the close relationship between TargetSmart and state parties. “This is huge,” one former Democratic official says. “State parties have to trust TargetSmart to share their files with it, and they have to believe their missions align.”
“Anyone who knows us know that every day we put our heart and soul into electing Democrats and fighting for progressive causes, like voting rights, the right to organize and so much more,” Bonier maintains. “We’ll proudly put our record up against anyone else’s.”
Ken Martin, chair of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party and president of the Association of State Democratic Committees, says that he is “not aware of any other companies” controlled by TargetSmart’s owners and that “I don’t work with the owners of TargetSmart, I work with TargetSmart.” He calls the state parties’ relationship with TargetSmart “very important.” And he adds, “I’m not excited by any group that works with Republicans, but TargetSmart has strict covenants with us as to how they can license the data [received from the state parties]. Nothing can be licensed out without our approval.” Martin emphasizes that TargetSmart only receives public data from the state parties, which identifies possible voters, not the proprietary information that might indicate how a voter intends to vote.
The Democratic and progressive data community has often been a contentious place full of turf fights involving state parties, the DNC, vendors, and donors. In the 2016 election, the Republicans employed data far more effectively than the Democrats, particularly because they had created an outfit called Data Trust through which Republican campaigns and outside groups shared voter data. (Such sharing allows campaigns, party committees, political action committees, and independent groups to obtain more reliable and useful data, to better target potential voters, and to avoid duplicative efforts.) At the time, Democrats accused the Republicans of violating campaign finance law that bars coordination between campaigns and supposedly independent groups. But after the election, the Democrats moved to establish a similar company called the Democratic Data Exchange, which is headed by former Vermont governor Howard Dean. Yet this effort was made more difficult by the rivalries within Democratic ranks.
One point of friction in Democratic data circles has been competition between TargetSmart and another key data company in the Democratic firmament: Catalist, a firm that is owned by a trust funded by liberal Democratic donors, including billionaire George Soros, and that compiles its own voter data files. On its website, Catalist states that it provides data to Democrats and progressives “only for civic engagement purposes, not for commercial for-profit uses.” People familiar with data issues within the Democratic Party describe this competition as a bitter feud.
In 2018, TargetSmart sued Catalist, claiming Catalist had taken part in a scheme to improperly obtain confidential and proprietary information from TargetSmart. Catalist called the suit “an unwarranted attack on a competitor without any basis in fact.” It noted that TargetSmart “had long been the sole source vendor for [the Democratic National Committee’s] voter data infrastructure” and that Catalist had hired an investment firm to approach TargetSmart about “a potential combination with the goal of helping Democratic candidates by improving the voter data infrastructure available to them.” Last year, both sides agreed to the dismissal of the suit.
Big data is big business in politics today—and its use has big consequences. It has become the lifeblood of modern campaigns. Yet how Democrats and Republicans structure and deploy their data operations is a matter rarely covered within the media or paid attention to by political observers and voters. It’s as inside as inside baseball can be. TargetSmart is no household name. But it holds a central position in the Democrats’ universe. The firm asserts it only helps Democratic—not Republican—candidates, but this vow does not cover its corporate parent. For some Democrats, it may seem, at the least, awkward for one of their key data operators to be enriching owners who are also assisting pro-Trump Republicans bent on thwarting the agenda of TargetSmart’s own clients and the progressive values TargetSmart promises to serve.
Russ Choma contributed to this story.
Top image: Mother Jones illustration; Kevin C. Cox/Getty; Melina Mara/The Washington Post/Getty