Eshelman originally made headlines back in 2008 for a last-minute ad blitz intended to sink Obama, and in 2010 for his enormous media buys, which put intense pressure on vulnerable Democratic senators and may have helped Republicans gain control of the House of Representatives.
The 2008 ads went after Obama over economic policy, then close to the election switched to ads with images of the 9/11 attacks, and the message, "Tell Sen. Obama: Don't undermine the terror strategy that protects us." It featured provocative footage -- the Twin Towers, dark-skinned men building a bomb, the detonation; and an image Obama next to another of terrorists driving a van.
In 2008, Eshelman provided RightChange with more than $5 million of its funding, putting him in the league of the Right's bogeyman, George Soros. In 2010, RightChange spent $3 million in the final stretch of the campaign.
RightChange's website doesn't impart a sense of being single-issue focused. The Israel angle displayed in "Absolutely Uncertain" does not register as a dominant cause for RightChange. This, and the decision to focus the film on a self-described liberal Jew and Obama voter -- hardly someone to be carrying the banner for Republicans and right wing policy -- are noteworthy.
This election RightChange has converted from a tax-exempt 527 organization, where donors' identities must be disclosed, to Rightchange.com II, Inc., a 501(c)(4) nonprofit "public welfare" entity where donations are not tax-deductible, but which -- significantly -- is not required to reveal donors.
"Punishing" Not-so-small Businesses
Eshelman is CEO of a major drug research and testing firm, Pharmaceutical Product Development. When the federal government is vigilant and active, his company is subject to considerable regulation and federal scrutiny for its work, which includes conducting clinical trials on behalf of large pharmaceutical firms seeking to prove that their wares are safe.
In February, 2008, he testified before a House investigative subcommittee regarding a clinical trial in which an Alabama doctor his company had hired to participate had committed fraud by falsifying her results, and the doctor ended up with a 57-month jail sentence. Eshelman told the committee that his company had notified Aventis, the pharmaceutical firm that had sponsored the trial, that it detected irregularities in the clinic, but did not terminate her or notify the FDA as that was Aventis's responsibility.
The House Committee hearing was part of an inquiry into why the Food and Drug Administration had approved the drug Ketek, despite known fraudulent clinical research about its safety. Ketek, which was intended to treat mild to moderate respiratory infections, can cause "severe liver damage," according to the FDA.
The same year Congress called in Eshelman, he began pumping huge sums into national politics -- first to his local North Carolina congressman, then to defeating Obama and seeking to influence many close national races. One of RightChange's ads shortly before the 2008 election warned that Obama's tax plan would "punish small businesses."
It's not clear how a "small business" like Eshelman's has been hurt. According to the database at FedSpending.org, his company has received more than $100 million in federal contracts from 2008 to the present.
Eshelman did not respond to WhoWhatWhy's request for an interview made via e-mail to RightChange. But in an emailed statement to his local newspaper, the Wilmington, NC StarNews, in 2008, Eshelman laid out only the most vague and general reasons for seeking to sway the course of national politics:
"I founded RightChange.com because it was increasingly clear that politicians on both sides were not being straight with Americans on tax and economic policy. When I tried to get information, I couldn't find a place to go for people who believe in free markets and that government is not the solution to our problems."
Contrary to this assertion about the need for "straight" information, RightChange's past ads have come under scrutiny and criticism for themselves being highly misleading. For example, this summer it produced an infographic, widely distributed on Facebook and other platforms, that inaccurately laid $5 billion of the national debt at the feet of the "Democratic majority."
You can read about other blatantly misleading assertions from RightChange here.
RightChange is yet another example of "astroturf" -- one person or a handful of people seeking to generate legitimacy by claiming a fundamentally non-existent broad base. On its website, RightChange says it "has grown into a national movement with over 642,000 supporters." But by all appearances, it's a straight Fred Eshelman, Inc. production. In 2008, he provided $2.7 million of its $3.8 million budget.