April 15, 2024 News & Press Releases

Staunton News Leader Finds Hung Cao Broke His Promise To Help Fellow Republicans, Used The Money To Promote Himself 

by DPVA Press

In case you missed it, a new report from the Staunton News Leader finds that Cao’s super PAC gave “no support” to Republican candidates in 2023 — breaking his own pledge to his fellow Republicans to do so and brazenly lying to voters. 

Instead, a significant amount of the money Cao raised went to his now-campaign manager and to pay his consultants. This report also finds that several Republican candidates could have used a financial boost from Cao’s PAC — but he lied to them and kept the money for himself. 

"If Hung Cao's lips are moving, he is lying. He couldn't even stick to his pledge to use voters' money to support fellow Republicans -- instead, he used the money to promote himself and his political career," said DPVA Chairwoman Susan Swecker. "Every day, Hung Cao comes up with new ways to prove how he is a fraud who can't be trusted, and Virginians are taking notice."

Read more below: 

Staunton News Leader: Unleash America was supposed to be about supporting Va. candidates. But the money didn't go there.

Elizabeth Beyer 

April 15, 2024

  • Robert Landrum thought he was supporting Republicans in Virginia’s statehouse elections that year, when he donated $500 to a federal super PAC in April 2023.
  • The super PAC, Unleash America, had one stated goal: To get Republicans elected during Virginia’s 2023 statehouse contests to support Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s agenda.
  • “That’s how he represented the PAC. That’s what he said,” Landrum said in a phone interview with USA Today.
  • He was referring to the PAC’s then “honorary chairman,” Hung Cao, a failed 2022 Congressional candidate from northern Virginia.
  • Cao, a retired Navy captain and, according to his LinkedIn page, a current employee of CACI International which regularly contracts with the U.S. Government, announced his PAC on a local radio talk show in February 2023. He pledged that Unleash America would support Republicans in 2023 in “a lot of the races that people wrote off."
  • “Without a good House of Delegates, without a State Senate, the governor’s not going to be able to get half the stuff that he wants to get across,” Cao said. “We have to concentrate on Virginia right now.”
  • On radio shows and in news articles in early 2023 Cao repeated his motivation for championing the PAC: To support Virginia Republicans seeking local and state-level office. His stated goal was to help to deliver a Republican General Assembly majority in November to support Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s legislative efforts.  
  • He made that pledge on The Wilkow Majority and Richmond’s Morning News with John Reid on February 2, 2023. And again, in an article that ran in The Dispatch on February 4, 2023. And again, in another article that ran in the Washington Examiner on February 7, 2023. And people listened.  
  • Unleash America super PAC received $103,489 in individual contributions last year, according to Federal Election Commission filings.
  • In November, Republicans lost the House of Delegates in Virginia. They failed to flip the Senate. Was all that money raised by Unleash America spent in vain?  
  • No. It doesn’t look like Unleash American spent any money at all to support Virginia's 2023 candidates.
  • According to the Federal Election Commission and Virginia’s State Board of Election filings, not a single Republican candidate for state or local office received any direct financial support from the federal Unleash America PAC. 
  • When asked why money raised by Unleash America did not go to support state candidates, Steve Roberts, general counsel for Hung Cao for Virginia, issued the following statement via email through an intermediary: "Unleash America PAC is a federally registered super PAC, and as such cannot make contributions to any campaign whatsoever. No campaign could possibly have received a contribution from Unleash America PAC, nor could Hung have pledged to make such a contribution."
  • Saurav Ghosh, the director of Federal Campaign Finance Reform for Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan nonprofit in Washington, D.C. noted that Virginia has no limits on campaign contributions. "I think it’s inaccurate for Cao’s campaign to say that a federal super PAC is not legally able to make contributions to the campaign of someone running for state office in Virginia."
  • Do Unleash America’s FEC filings for 2023 tell the story of a Super PAC built to support state candidates? “Really, quite the opposite it would seem,” wrote Brendan Glavin, Deputy Research Director for OpenSecrets, a nonprofit out of Washington, D.C. that tracks campaign finance information. “The spending is focused on fundraising.”
  • Ghosh called the expenditures on Unleash America’s FEC filings “operating expenses.”
  • Analysis of Unleash America’s expenditures shows no support of any kind, in-kind or otherwise, for Virginia’s Republican candidates, though that’s what Cao promised his PAC would do, over and over in 2023.
  • Brief history of a super PAC: Fantastic fundraising, failed campaign, refreshed aspirations for federal office
  • An unsuccessful campaign for Congress was the origin of Unleash America.
  • Cao ran against Democratic Rep. Jennifer Wexton in 2022 to represent Virginia’s 10th Congressional District – an area in northern Virginia that includes Loudon County and rural areas that abut the northern tip of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
  • Cao lost to Wexton by over 6 percentage points. But his campaign garnered significant financial support from donors across the country, he said. FEC records show he raised $3 million in individual contributions that year.  
  • After he was defeated by Wexton, he pledged to focus his apparent fundraising prowess to support Republican statehouse candidates in Virginia’s 2023 election.  
  • Cao was named the “honorary chairman” of the Unleash America super PAC when it launched in early February 2023.  
  • “We need to get leaders in the Virginia House of Delegates and the State Senate that believe in our values,” he told Richmond talk radio host John Reid on a Feb. 2, 2023 broadcast.  
  • “That’s why I’m launching Unleash America PAC, because I was one of the top fundraisers in the country this past year, I think I was 14th out of 435 people. I had people giving from all 50 states and I wanted to use that in order to help the people running this year,” he said. 
  • On its website, and its first post on X, formerly Twitter, Unleash America’s stated goal was “supporting leaders and policies in Virginia and across the United States that embody the American spirit of resilience and ingenuity.” 
  • “A guy running for delegate in Virginia is not going to be able to raise as much as I did,” Cao told The Dispatch in February 2023. Cao also told The Dispatch that the PAC planned to name its fundraising team in the weeks after that interview. Their website currently lists one employee, an executive director, over one year later.
  • “I’m telling you, not a single dime will go in my pocket,” Cao told Andrew Wilkow on his nationwide conservative talk show, The Wilkow Majority. “I want to use my influence across the nation to really get people to donate so we can help a lot of these candidates, the good candidates, get across the finish line.”
  • Halfway to that finish line, however, he shifted gears. In July Cao announced his bid for the U.S. Senate seat currently occupied by Sen. Tim Kaine, about six months after he launched Unleash America.
  • In the months leading up to his announcement, Cao’s account had retweeted many of the PAC’s posts on X and Cao appeared regularly in the PAC’s social media posts. No other candidate appeared in the posts.  
  • Unleash America published one final post once Cao publicly announced his intent to run for the U.S. Senate seat: “We are proud to back up Hung Cao as he begins his fight in Virginia to take on DC and the Radical Left in the US Senate.”  
  • PAC's biggest payment was unleashed to Cao's campaign manager
  • The Unleash America super PAC raised $103,489 in individual contributions between January 1, 2023 and December 31, 2023.
  • The PAC also received a $45,000 donation from Hung Cao for Virginia, Cao’s principal U.S. Senate campaign committee, for a total of $148,489 in donations. That infusion of cash helped pay for the rest of the super PAC’s expenditures, which totaled $139,421.
  • A large portion of Unleash America’s expenditures went to two entities in 2023 that Cao was also paying from his Senate campaign committee.
  • The biggest amount: $37,514 went to John Ryan O’Rourke. O’Rourke is Cao’s 2024 Senate campaign manager. In the same year that O’Rourke received those consulting fees from Unleash America, he also received $96,168 from Hung Cao for Virginia, Cao’s Senate campaign committee.
  • Another $22,867 of Unleash America’s money went to K2 & Co., a communications firm Cao had employed during his 2022 Congressional campaign and also during his 2024 Senate campaign. K2 & Co. was paid $15,000 by Cao’s Senate campaign on October 3, 2023.
  • Besides $68,639 in consulting fees, Unleash America also paid $29,403 for list rentals, $18,576 for digital fundraising, $12,500 in legal fees, $6,398 in meeting and lodging expenses as well as bank fees and $3,904 in earmark fees to WinRed, a fundraising arm of the Republican Party.
  • ‘List rental’ often refers to email or address lists of individuals that can be used to solicit contributions to a specific candidate or committee, according to the Federal Elections Commission. Unleash America could have shared those lists with different campaigns, but that practice is typically contractually prohibited by the list vendor.
  • Roberts, general counsel for Hung Cao for Virginia, did not respond when asked how the lists rented by Unleash America were used. 
  • Max Fisher and Nhan Huynh, Republicans who ran to represent district 8 and 9, respectively, in Virginia's House of Delegates, said lists rented by Unleash America were not shared with their campaigns.
  • There are no in-kind donations or other categories of disbursement that suggest Unleash America spent any money on ad campaigns that were targeted to help Huynh, Fisher, or any other statewide Republican candidates during the 2023 election.
  • Donors gave multiple times over weeks and months
  • Hundreds of people from around the country donated to Unleash America. They donated thousands of different times. Some of those payments were reoccurring. They paid monthly, bi-monthly, weekly and some paid multiple times in one day. They live across the country in Colorado, Oregon, Texas, South Carolina, Delaware, Missouri, New York, Nevada and, of course, Virginia.  
  • One donor from California, who listed their profession as retired on their contribution form, donated to Unleash America 36 different times between April 2023 and June. They donated a total of $301 in small dollar donations, at times contributing up to eight different times in one day.
  • A donor from Arizona, who listed their profession as a greenkeeper on their contribution form, donated to Unleash America 12 times between March 2023 and June. They donated a total of $740, with hundreds of dollars contributed in multiple payments over the course of one day.
  • A donor from Oklahoma, who listed their profession as a secretary on their contribution form, donated $548 to Unleash America in one month. Of that, they donated $348 through multiple payments over one day in April 2023.
  • A number of Unleash America donors, contacted by a USA Today reporter, initially had trouble recalling exactly why they contributed to the PAC but said they thought their donation was going towards Virginia state election campaigns.
  • “I’d like to hear his side of the story,” Landrum, one of the donors, said when asked if he felt Cao could have been clearer in his stated goal for funds raised by Unleash America.
  • That side of the story's been hard to come by. Over a period of months, neither Cao's campaign nor Cao’s campaign counsel, Roberts, returned phone calls to his office. Cao's campaign manager, O'Rourke, did not respond to phone calls or texts.
  • Emails sent to Roberts' address and Cao’s Senate campaign address, with follow up questions that outlined the radio broadcasts and news reports where Cao made his pledge to support state candidates through the federal Unleash America super PAC, did not receive a response. When asked if the Unleash America fundraising team was ever hired, Cao’s Senate campaign did not respond. Emails sent to the press address on the Unleash America website and to the PAC treasurer, listed on the FEC website, received no response.  
  • Candidates speak out, a donor is left with a question 
  • “I’m not Bill Gates, I’m not Warren Buffet, I’m not Elon Musk. My pennies matter to me,” Brenda Ward said in a phone interview with USA Today. 
  • Ward, a 74-year-old retiree living in Florida, had donated a total of $252 to Unleash America. That money was paid through $42 individual donations over the course of six payments over six months.
  • “It’s counter-productive if [PACs] attempt to raise money on one pretext and actually pursue another. They’re defeating their own purpose. I don’t know why anybody would do that,” Ward said. 
  • Landrum was more charitable towards Cao’s use of the money raised by Unleash America.
  • “Basically, the idea was, you are supporting Hung Cao by him supporting local candidates,” he said. “It’s a tricky minefield. You can’t always do what you expect to do with the funds.”
  • Regardless, Cao’s fundraising seemed to have ruffled feathers within the party as well as drawing scrutiny from the press.
  • Kimberly Lowe, a candidate in the Republican primary for Virginia’s U.S. Senate race, railed against another Senate candidate who promised to support state candidates in 2023 but didn’t deliver.
  • “If you took … from donors saying you were raising money for state candidates and you pocketed it yourself for your Senate campaign, I want you to go home, because you’re already a liar,” she told the Fredericksburg Virginia branch of the Tea Party in a Facebook livestream.
  • Lowe confirmed she was referring to Cao when asked in person by USA Today before a candidate forum in February, which Cao did not attend.  
  • Fisher and Huynh, both Republicans, ran for House of Delegates seats in Fairfax County in 2023. Both candidates said they hadn’t heard of the Unleash America super PAC until after the 2023 elections were over. Both were hugely outspent by their Democratic opponents in the northern Virginia districts and both lost. 
  • “Campaign-wise, we were really stretched for money,” Fisher said.  
  • Trying to solicit campaign contributions from donors within the Republican Party was a struggle. Often, when he would talk to potential donors, they would say they had already contributed to a variety of other PACs, Fisher said.  
  • “That kind of took away from the direct donations that we had,” he said. 
  • Huynh said any financial help from super PACs like Unleash America would have been appreciated. 
  • “We were really pressed for advertisements at the end, and we didn’t have the money,” he said, referring to his campaign.
  • It's possible that Unleash America didn't, either.
  • OpenSecret's Glavin wrote that while Unleash America could have spent money on media buys to support or oppose candidates, “Through the year-end, they didn’t seem to really generate enough contributions to really do much of that.”