Biden Rival Campaign and ‘Tech Bro’ Super PAC Test Election Laws

dean phillips big tech

Brothers Matt and Scott Krisiloff — allies of OpenAI CEO Sam Altman — were deeply involved in Rep. Dean Phillips’ presidential campaign before leaving to launch a super PAC in support of the Minnesota Democrat’s longshot 2024 bid, as well as a dark money group that is running ads in New Hampshire, according to interviews, internal documents, and public records obtained by Rolling Stone

Campaign finance lawyers say the Phillips campaign and We Deserve Better, the super PAC, are testing the limits of federal election rules designed to prohibit coordination between campaigns, which are bound by contribution limits, and outside groups that can accept donations of any size. A watchdog group has already filed a separate complaint alleging coordination between the Philips campaign and a different super PAC supporting the liquor heir’s primary challenge to President Joe Biden.

Phillips has often railed against the corrupting influence of big money in politics, and he once called Citizens United — the landmark 2010 Supreme Court decision that paved the way for super PACs to spend unlimited funds on elections — “sickening.” Yet, Phillips’ campaign appears to be “pushing the legal envelope” with its allied super PAC, We Deserve Better, one campaign finance lawyer tells Rolling Stone.

According to interviews and documents, the Krisiloffs were members of the Phillips campaign’s “leadership” group on the encrypted messaging application Signal; they conducted at least a dozen focus groups about Phillips with voters in New Hampshire, Michigan, and South Carolina both before and after the launch of the campaign; and they marked up at least one internal Phillips campaign polling memo with their opinions on polling mechanics and their messaging ideas. 

On Nov. 21, both brothers abruptly removed themselves from the Signal group, according to a screen grab reviewed by Rolling Stone; one day later, Matt Krisiloff formed a dark money nonprofit, We Deserve Better Action, and nine days after that, the brothers launched a super PAC supporting the Phillips campaign. The groups’ names are variations on “We Deserve Better,” a tagline that appeared on a list of potential campaign slogans circulated inside the Phillips campaign. The super PAC has spent $1.4 million so far to promote Phillips’ candidacy. The dark money group, meanwhile, has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on ads that seek to boost voter turnout in New Hampshire without mentioning Phillips.

Both the Krisiloff brothers and the Phillips campaign denied any prohibited coordination. “There was absolutely no prohibited coordination between these former unpaid volunteers and the campaign,” a Phillips campaign representative told Rolling Stone by email. 

In a separate email, Matt Krisiloff said he and his brother “were unpaid volunteers to the campaign without any formal association, and we have neither coordinated nor used any non-public information in super PAC activities. We have not violated any campaign finance laws.”

Of the dark money group, We Deserve Better Action, Matt Krisiloff said, it “is a separate 501(c)(4) organization which has a mission of educating voters about increasing voter turnout for greater practice of democracy.”

While inside the campaign, two people familiar with its inner workings tell Rolling Stone the brothers represented themselves as ambassadors for Altman, the CEO of the artificial intelligence research organization OpenAI. They “name-dropped him constantly,” one said. They are said to have promised Altman’s help marshaling influencers to publicly support Phillips and his assistance developing an artificial intelligence-driven donor system. The idea that the tech billionaire would raise enormous amounts of money for a super PAC to back Phillips’ candidacy was also a topic of frequent discussion when the brothers were involved in the campaign, those people said.

A spokesperson for Altman said he did not make those suggestions to the Phillips campaign or ask anyone to do it on his behalf.

The brothers also rejected the characterization. “We never represented ourselves as ambassadors for Sam nor represented he would give any kind of specific help, and Sam is neither involved nor a donor to the super PAC,” said Matt Krisiloff. “As far as I am aware he also has no involvement with the campaign.” (Matt Krisiloff also insisted that his brother is no longer involved with the super PAC, despite the fact that he is listed as a board member on multiple TV ad buys, including one filed on Wednesday. Krisiloff attributed his inclusion on those filings to a clerical error.)

In November, Puck News reported that, for months, Altman — concerned about Biden’s prospects for re-election — had “convened a series of private gatherings… centered on identifying and recruiting a viable Biden alternative who could prevent Trump’s return.” The tech billionaire reportedly met with Phillips the same month, days after President Biden signed an executive order imposing new rules on the growing artificial intelligence industry. 

The Krisiloffs were already involved with the campaign at that time. Matt Krisiloff was an early employee at OpenAI who reportedly dated Altman; he went on to found a company, Conception, that is working to produce artificial human eggs using stem cells. His brother, Scott, was described by Puck as “Altman’s political adviser”; according to his LinkedIn, Scott Krisiloff currently works as an executive at a nuclear fusion startup backed by Altman. 

The Krisiloffs’ presence — along with that of Zach Graumann, Andrew Yang’s former campaign manager — made the campaign feel like “tech bro fest,” one person said. The “bros” grated on more experienced staffers, who felt they were out of their depth. “It’s the Dunning-Kruger effect: The less you know, the more certain you are of your opinions, because there’s no information there to help you,” one person with knowledge of the campaign’s inner workings said. “They are the definition of the Dunning-Kruger effect.” 

That dynamic is palpable in one internal Phillips campaign polling memo marked up by both Krisiloffs. Instead of asking voters if certain policy positions would make a person more or less likely to vote for Phillips — the traditional survey technique — Scott Krisiloff suggests: “It may be useful to have a 1 to 10 scale.” 

A person integrating changes to the document responds: “I’m certainly open to that, if a data science researcher/professional pollster says that we’ll be able to use that data for regression analysis in the same way. The question isn’t ‘How much do you like this?’ The question is, ‘How would this affect your vote?’”

Scott Krisiloff responds: “The questions should be ‘how much do you like this?’ My background is in econometrics — this works from a data science perspective.”

The polling memo is full of feedback from both Krisiloffs. At one point, while discussing possible campaign slogans, Matt Krisiloff alludes to having a direct line to the candidate, writing: “as of Friday Dean was curious about: ‘A Time for Courage’, ‘Be not Afraid’, ‘The Quiet Part Out Loud’ (last one I think wonky), ‘Faith over Fear.’” Also on the list of potential slogans to be poll tested: “We Deserve Better.” (The Phillips campaign has since run ads entitled, “Courage” and “Saying the Quiet Part Out Loud.”) Elsewhere in the same document, Matt Krisiloff suggests the campaign should poll the idea of Phillips appointing a “common sense czar” whose role would be “to find ways to save on spending in government.”

The memo, which was circulated in late October and early November is remarkable for the fact that it contemplates the kinds of questions that a typical presidential campaign would have answered well before launching. It states, “Problem: We need to know which voters we need to win the Democratic primary, and which messages will appeal to those voters.” (The memo also refers to “excellent focus groups” that were previously conducted by the Krisiloffs; one individual familiar with the focus groups described them as “amateurish.”)

In the polling memo, advisers to the campaign also contemplate polling on positions Phillips didn’t yet hold. “‘We can/should explicitly test Medicare for All,’ one staffer comments on the document. “[Phillips] is sold on the merits but not on the branding, so a split with one question calling it ‘universal health insurance’ or ‘national health insurance’ would be valuable.” The question must have polled well because Phillips announced his support for Medicare for All a few weeks later — something he had declined to do over his first three terms in Congress. (We Deserve Better would later produce ads touting Phillips’ support for Medicare for All.)

On Nov. 21 — less than three weeks after they gave feedback on the polling memo — both Krisiloffs removed themselves from the campaign’s Signal group. Ten days after that, they officially formed a super PAC called We Deserve Better.

The super PAC has not yet publicly reported its finances, and it is unclear if Altman is among its donors. (His spokesperson did not respond to questions about whether he has donated to the super PAC or the dark money group.) But at least one other billionaire Phillips courted is coming through: Last week, hedge fund chief Bill Ackman pledged to donate $1 million to the super PAC. Shortly thereafter, the Phillips campaign website dropped a reference to “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” — a movement of which Ackman is critical.    

The Krisiloffs’ decision to leave the campaign and launch a super PAC in support of Phillips’ bid shortly after such close involvement with the campaign is a direct test of Federal Election Commission rules governing coordination between campaigns and PACs, two campaign finance experts confirmed to Rolling Stone. 

Even if the Krisiloffs were never paid by the campaign, there are rules governing their conduct if they had access to certain information. “Someone with intimate knowledge of a campaign cannot be materially involved in a super PAC’s communications or strategy,” says Shanna Ports, senior legal counsel for campaign finance at the Campaign Legal Center. “If you have knowledge of the internal plans, or activities, or needs of a campaign, and take that knowledge to a super PAC and put it to use, that would be coordination.” 

The super PAC’s own name tests that standard. “It could be evidence of coordination if ‘We Deserve Better’ is not a public tagline of the campaign,” Ports says. “That would show that they did have intimate strategic knowledge of the campaign’s strategy and inner workings.”

Brendan Fischer, deputy executive director of the watchdog Documented, agrees. “The conduct may not fall squarely within the FEC’s coordination provisions governing former employees if the individuals were not paid by the campaign. However, the coordination rules are aimed at preventing a campaign from privately sharing its plans, strategies, and messaging with a super PAC, which sounds a lot like what happened here,” Fischer tells Rolling Stone

“At a minimum, it sounds like the Phillips campaign is pushing the legal envelope as it works closely with its big money arm. Depending on the nature of the relationship, there may be other ways that this conduct violates the coordination rules,” Fischer added.

Phillips himself has denounced politicians’ reliance on big money donors, declaring in 2018, “Money in politics is destroying this country in a way that few recognize, and we’re on a path that if we don’t reduce the influence of affluence, we’re in big trouble.” 


Phillips’ stance on money in politics was, in fact, one of the messages that the campaign sought polling data on, according to the memo.

It asks if the following statement from Phillips would make voters more or less likely to support his candidacy: “When politicians raise money, they’re not calling single parents working two jobs, the homeless, the disabled. They’re calling wealthy people, corporations, lobbyists. And then what do those corporations and lobbyists expect in return? They expect access, and when you have access, you have influence. So is it any wonder we have Trumpism in this country? We have tens of millions of people across the country saying, ‘It’s just so clear my voice doesn’t matter. Nobody cares about me. I’m not being heard.’ You know why? They’re right. And that’s why I’m running for president. I’m sick of the corrupt status quo in Washington.”

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