Kent Sorenson Was a Tea Party Hero. Then He Lost Everything. – POLITICO Magazine
Inmate No. 15000-030 is released into the frigid January morning at 8:46, a gray custodial suit of sweatpants and long-sleeved thermal clinging to his immense frame, a bushy salt-and-pepper beard wrapping around his face, a guard escorting him with a high-powered rifle slung over his right shoulder. Most politicians would appear hopelessly—dangerously—misplaced in a federal prison. Kent Sorenson is not most politicians. Standing over six feet tall and weighing every bit of 270 pounds, with 11 tattoos and a cleanshaven head, Sorenson is probably the only state senator to have ever been mistaken for a member of the Aryan Brotherhood. That happened during his first stop on the penal turnpike, the Metropolitan Correctional Center (“The MCC”) in Chicago, an administrative facility with maximum-security lodging where the “fish” was viewed warily by fellow inmates. A white supremacist, they figured, sizing him up. It didn’t take long—as soon as he opened his mouth, really—for them to realize otherwise. The neighborly disposition, bug-eyed gape and pitched, nasally voice cleared Sorenson of suspicion. That feels like a life sentence ago. Sorenson has spent the last 10 months here at his second post, the minimum-security United States Penitentiary at Thomson (USP Thomson) in Thomson, Illinois, just over the border from his native Iowa and a four-hour drive from his home in the central part of the state. Today he’s getting out and going back—not home, exactly, but to a halfway house in Des Moines, where he’ll be able to look for work and enjoy long weekend furloughs with his wife, Shawnee, and their six children. As we wait in the parking lot for her husband to appear, the engine of their aging Toyota SUV straining to keep warm in the nine-degree chill, Shawnee tells me how brutal Kent’s incarceration had been on the kids. She is particularly worried about their two sons.
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Just then he appears, toting a small cardboard box of personal effects and striding purposely toward the SUV. Shawnee jumps out, kissing her husband and apologizing for forgetting his winter coat. He engulfs her in a bear hug before turning to the stranger a few steps behind. “Hey, nice to meet you,” Sorenson tells me, extending a hand. “Could you do me a favor and drive? I haven’t seen my wife for a long time.” Caught off guard—this wasn’t the plan—I say “sure,” as long as my recorder is rolling. “Just don’t look in the backseat,” he adds. Sorenson grins. He stayed up late last night with the “homeboys” debating how to mess with the reporter picking him up from prison. Now he can’t stop laughing. It’s the happiest I’ll ever see him.
Left: Shawnee Sorenson looks on as her husband is released from federal prison in Thomson, Illinois. Right: Five hours later, Kent and Shawnee Sorenson arrive at the halfway house in Des Moines, Iowa. | Photos by Tim Alberta
Shawnee takes the wheel instead, navigating toward Interstate-80 West, and her husband’s humor abruptly turns to melancholy. “I’m going to miss those men,” Sorenson says. It sounds trite, obligatory. And yet his eyes are moist. For the next 20 minutes, emotion chokes at his voice as he describes in detail the captive brotherhood forged with the sorts of criminals Sorenson would have once gladly banished from society without a second thought. Now he knows them, their struggles, their stories. There was Ricky, the self-described “pharmaceutical salesman” from Chicago who is doing 10 years for what should have been a petty drug crime—and whose son was shot during his imprisonment. There was Juan, who got suckered into entering a drug house by an undercover fed and was busted inside holding a stack of cash. And there was Chad, who became Sorenson’s best friend at USP Thomson, a Des Moines native who grew up in a meth house and is doing a 20-year stretch for a nonviolent drug crime he committed as a young man. Chad, who carries photos of his two children, ages 11 and 17, has already been locked up for nine years—and despite exemplary behavior and obvious rehabilitation, he won’t get out for at least another nine due to federal sentencing guidelines.
Sorenson emphasizes that he is not naïve. He understands that some people belong in prison, that not everyone’s story should be believed. But having spent the past year in two different institutions, learning about the lives of the inhabitants and the circumstances surrounding their detentions, he developed a burning animosity for the criminal justice system.
His melancholy soon turns to outrage. “There’s no rehabilitation happening in there. There’s no teaching, there’s no training,” he says. Worse, Sorenson adds, were the atrocious conditions: expired food, foul bathrooms, decrepit living quarters. Finally, there’s the underlying sickness plaguing the Bureau of Prisons, race relations—specifically, the entrenched, systemic approach of facilitating and fueling ethnic rivalries in service of the accepted notion that a divided community of inmates is incapable of uniting in the pursuit of a more humane environment.
Kent Sorenson at the kitchen table of his home near Milo, Iowa. | Danny Wilcox Frazier for Politico Magazine
This, at last, is when Sorenson’s outrage turns to guilt. It’s not that he could have done more from the inside; it’s that he should have done more from the outside, when he had the power, when he was a policymaker with authority and influence, before he became just another discarded member of society. Sorenson, the Republican state senator and Tea Party superstar with a clear path to Congress, had heard about disparities in sentencing. He had read about the statistical inequalities and crooked economics that are foundational to the American prison system. He had watched the demonstrators on television chanting about the devastation wreaked on minority communities by mass incarceration. And he didn’t buy any of it. Sorenson was a conservative—not just any conservative, but a fiery, in-your-face ideologue who preached punitive justice and individual responsibility. He was a law-and-order dogmatist. And he was, if he’s being honest, “a little bit racist,” with no time for the “bullshit propaganda” being peddled by the likes of Black Lives Matter.
Shame envelops Sorenson’s face as a thick snowfall begins to blanket the interstate. Shawnee warns that a blizzard is in the forecast and asks her husband to call the halfway house. He’s supposed to arrive in four hours, but this weather is bound to make him late. Kent picks up her cell phone and stares at it blankly. Shawnee senses his confusion, reaches over and unlocks the screen for him. She dials the number and hands it back. While it rings, Sorenson glances at me. “One year and I’m a zombie,” he shrugs. “Can you imagine coming out after 20 and seeing an iPhone?”
I can’t imagine a lot of things. How someone like Sorenson—a roughneck high school dropout with a winding rap sheet—won elected office as a Tea Party darling and became one of America’s most sought-after presidential endorsements. How the novice state legislator found himself starring in the biggest political scandal in Iowa’s history. How the defendant wound up sharing a cell with cartel members despite the federal prosecutors recommending probation. How the inmate with a hardened worldview had his eyes opened. And how, after enduring so much turmoil and tragedy, Sorenson is supposed to pick up the pieces.
Several weeks before we met in Illinois, Sorenson agreed to give his account for the first time—on my condition of complete and total disclosure. We wound up talking on-the-record for more than eight hours. From those conversations, as well as interviews with dozens of friends, foes, legal acquaintances and veterans of Iowa’s political scene, and hundreds of pages of police reports, court records and federal indictments, I hoped to answer the questions surrounding Sorenson’s rise and fall—and achieve some closure on a story that still confounds the most powerful people in a state that picks our presidents. Little do either of us know, as we rumble westward toward Des Moines, that Kent Sorenson’s punishment has only just begun.
Sorenson’s prison ID. | Timothy Alberta
The man behind the desk sifted through stacks of processing forms, finally glancing up. “What are you gonna say you’re in for?” he asked Sorenson. The new inmate blinked. “Don’t tell them what you’re actually in for,” the MCC official clarified. “It sounds weak.” Sorenson was stunned. Of everything he’d researched online about prison life—the gangs, the food, the unwritten rules—explaining his crime had never come up. “What should I say I’m in for?” he sputtered. “That’s up to you,” the man replied. “I just won’t tell them anything,” Sorenson shrugged. “That won’t work,” the man said. “They’ll think you’re a chomo.” Sorenson already knew what “chomo” meant: a child molester, the lowest form of life in the penal ecosystem, a likely target for beatings or worse. “Try bank fraud,” suggested the man behind the desk.
When he arrived at his new residence—the 19th floor of the MCC—Sorenson was met with pandemonium. The sleeping arrangements had, some time ago, been rearranged by the highest-ranking inmate on the floor, a lieutenant to the Mexican cartel kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. The lieutenant had recently been transferred, but the arrangements remained. Now, with a new inmate, the guards restored the nominal structure of the floor to ensure that Sorenson had a bed. There was just one problem: Another inmate was on Sorenson’s assigned bunk and refused to budge. Taking it all in, the decibel level spiking around him, Sorenson feared for his safety sooner than he’d ever imagined. Quickly, though, he realized the threats weren’t directed at him; it was the obstinate inmate who was holding up the program. Sorenson felt relief, and later pity: The stubborn man, in his 40s, had the mental capacity of a child and was rumored to have been raped. He belonged in an institution, not a federal prison.
Where did Sorenson belong? Not here , he told himself. I’m a family man, a business owner, an elected official . But he knew this was a sanitized version of himself—Kent Sorenson 2.0, the archetypal good guy cheated by a bad system. In truth, for most of his life, the penitentiary had been a far likelier destination than the legislature.
Sorenson grew up a hellion. The son of simple Iowa folks—his father owned a janitorial operation—he began smoking marijuana in 6 th grade, selling and using harder drugs soon after and drinking heavily by age 14. He would lie to his parents about sleepovers and spend late nights and long weekends cementing a rotten reputation. He built a considerable rap sheet: assault, disorderly conduct, drug possession and delivery. He dropped out of high school at 17 and married Shawnee, then 16. But the marriage, and the births of their first two children, did little to change Sorenson’s destructive ways. “I was a horrible husband and a horrible father,” he says. “The turning point was our third child. I knew if I didn’t change I’d lose my family.”
Kent Sorenson riding his Harley Davidson Road King to Des Moines. Riding his motorcycle is the one time Sorenson says he can clear his head and relax. | Danny Wilcox Frazier for Politico Magazine
Sorenson moved his wife and young kids to Oklahoma, hoping to start over by enrolling in Bible school. That never happened. He became disillusioned with their Tulsa church and providing for the family became an all-consuming priority. Still, somehow, Sorenson got his life together, and a few years later returned to Iowa a changed person. He visited the local cops to apologize for past indiscretions. He made things right with his parents. He opened a small business. And he involved his family in the community—church, sports, homeschooling groups.
But politics? Sorenson had no interest. This, despite growing up in caucus-crazy Iowa, with outsized attention paid to the state by every president in the modern era. The extent of his partisan engagement was nodding along to socially conservative sermons and sporadically tuning into local talk radio. His general perception of politicians was harsh—they were all liars and leeches, playing word games to deceive the public and enrich themselves in the process. It was only when the former Baptist preacher Mike Huckabee caught fire in Iowa that Sorenson felt moved, for the first time, to caucus in January 2008. A few weeks later, when Shawnee asked him to accompany her to a rally at the state capital in Des Moines, he snickered. No way . He believed in the cause—amending the state’s constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage—but standing outside the capital on an icy January afternoon was not his idea of time well spent. Shawnee was unrelenting. She told him it was their moral responsibility. She told him it was about what kind of state their children would grow up in. He sighed and agreed to go along.
Once there, a switch flipped inside of Sorenson. He was swept up in the emotion of the event, galvanized by the notion of a culture under siege, inspired by the powerful oration of Rev. Keith Ratliff, then the president of Iowa’s chapter of the NAACP. Storming the capitol building on a whim, Sorenson and a group of friends demanded an audience with the officeholders who represented them: Representative Mark Davitt and Senator Staci Appel, both Democrats. Waiting and waiting, having pestered their staffs, Sorenson expected the lawmakers to eventually oblige him. Neither one did. He was apoplectic. Sorenson spent the car ride home fuming. He vowed to help organize campaigns to defeat both Davitt and Appel.
There was one problem: Iowa Republicans didn’t think defeating either of them was possible. This was 2008, already shaping up to be a monster year for Democrats, and the state GOP wouldn’t waste money trying to flip moderate districts around Des Moines when there were endangered red seats in rural areas to defend. Informed that Davitt, a well-connected Democrat whose wife worked for the Des Moines Register , would likely win reelection uncontested, Sorenson decided he would run himself—an unknown small businessman without staff, campaign infrastructure or major donors, much less any political experience.
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Republican officials rolled their eyes. Democrats ignored him. But Sorenson was an inferno, campaigning around the clock, knocking on nearly every door in the district, hammering the issues of marriage and abortion and traditional values. He tapped into Iowa’s vast network of faith-based homeschoolers, which in turn connected Sorenson with some of the state’s evangelical heavyweights. “The Christian conservative community in Iowa had been disappointed for years with Republicans who made promises but didn’t deliver,” explains Jamie Johnson, a well-known activist who befriended Sorenson when both ran for the legislature in 2008. “Kent delivered, and he became a rock star.”
The evangelical community became one of the two organizational pillars supporting Sorenson. The other was Ron Paul—or, more accurately, the remnant of his Iowa operation that in the aftermath of the 2008 caucuses was eager to flex its grassroots muscle on behalf of candidates who could prove valuable as allies down the road. The combination—Paul’s ground game and social conservatives’ enthusiasm—caught everyone sleeping. On election night 2008, as a Democratic wave crushed Republicans nationwide, just two blue seats in the Iowa legislature turned red. Sorenson defeated Davitt by 163 votes.
The biographical makeover didn’t age well . After his bed was finally vacated and Sorenson was allowed to settle in, he started chatting with a nearby neighbor. One of few other white inmates, the fellow traveler asked Sorenson what he was in for. “Bank fraud,” he replied. The man smiled. “Me too.” Except he was telling the truth. Sorenson listened for a minute as his new companion detailed his offenses. “Actually, I’m not in for bank fraud,” Sorenson declared, almost desperately, unshouldering the burden of sustaining a double identity behind bars. Consequences be damned, the newest resident of the 19th floor unloaded the whole story to a captive audience, murmurs of the tale gusting throughout the crowded cells.
It was the best thing that could have happened to him. The processing officer had it backward: To the inmates of the MCC—and particularly to the Latin Kings, who ran the floor—Sorenson was an honored guest. “For those guys, a corrupt politician is the gold standard,” he says. The new inmate was promptly given his nickname, a rite of passage in a world that eschews the use of Christian monikers: “Senator.”
And yet Sorenson was still a fish—one very much out of water, unfamiliar with the codes and customs of federal prison. Shortly into his stay, while waiting in the pill line for his melatonin (he had always depended on marijuana for sleep), he unwittingly cut in front of “Wall Street,” a battle-scarred young man doing time for narcotics distribution. Wall Street was a member of the Gangster Disciples, the prison’s black clique that rivaled the Latin Kings. He shoved Sorenson and they exchanged words. The new inmate retreated, hoping the incident was over. But he had made an enemy. Wall Street kept after him, day after day, harassing Sorenson and threatening violence.
Skills are the currency of a prison. Inmates use them to forge partnerships, improve their circumstances and stay alive. Some men cook. Some men tattoo. Some men smuggle. Sorenson’s skill was paperwork—and it might have saved his life. Though his fellow inmates were “some of the smartest guys I’ve ever met,” many were illiterate. As word of his background spread, Sorenson heard them talking as though he were a Rhodes Scholar—a perception he wasn’t about to dispute. Days before the run-in with Wall Street, Sorenson had been approached by “Dough Boy,” the Latin King boss running the 19th floor. Dough Boy was the shot-caller, or the leader of his respective tribe, responsible for everything from negotiating with other factions to approving a well-placed shiv in someone’s abdomen. Yet he, like many inmates, struggled with the paperwork needed to request things like family visits or to file official grievances with the Bureau of Prisons. Sizing up Sorenson, Dough Boy had asked for help with the forms. The new inmate obliged—to the displeasure of the guards—and in so doing he gained protection.
When the beef with Wall Street began, Dough Boy advised Sorenson to confront him before it escalated. Sorenson demurred repeatedly. And then it happened: Wall Street, perched above Sorenson one day, spit downward on his rival’s head. Rushing up to face him, Sorenson was flanked by both Dough Boy and the Gangster Disciples’ shot-caller. With an open fist, Sorenson reached back and struck Wall Street across the face. He braced for a return volley. Instead, the young man looked at his shot-caller and stood down. The gang leaders were in charge of enforcing the code, and in this instance, Wall Street was out of line. He did not have permission to fight; his beef with the new inmate, a white man unaffiliated with any crew, served no purpose or principle. “Prison is its own little government—rules and regulations and bylaws, and inmates abide by them very carefully,” Sorenson explains to me.
Wandering back to his cell, Sorenson felt proud of his restraint—he’d done just enough to send a message, nothing more—and wondered where it came from.
Sen. Kent Sorenson, R-Indianola, left, talks with Sen. Bill Dix, R-Shell Rock, during budget debate on the floor of the Iowa Senate, Tuesday, June 21, 2011, at the Statehouse in Des Moines, Iowa. | AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
He had been deliberately rash as a legislator—spouting off, locking horns for fun, antagonizing equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats. He sponsored a birther bill and advocated a return to the gold standard. He shouted down party leaders and called into radio programs to leak details from just-adjourned caucus meetings. He strutted around the capital with a Bluetooth ear piece. “Everyone hated me, and I deserved it,” he says. Not quite everyone. In Sorenson the evangelical right found its champion, someone who fought unapologetically and had a knack for exploiting cultural conflict. Matt Strawn, who was elected chairman of the Iowa GOP just after Sorenson’s 2008 victory, recalls a 2009 event highlighting “rising stars” in the party. The guest speaker was Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee. He preached inclusion, urging Republicans to build a coalition party rather than fighting each other over social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. When the event ended, and Sorenson was invited on stage, he made a show of refusing to shake Barbour’s hand.
“Kent seemed to draw his political life force from not only picking fights, but from letting everyone know that he was picking those fights,” Strawn recalls. “He possessed a finely tuned political antenna when it came to tapping into the anti-establishment sentiments in the party. He was a crusader who wouldn’t compromise on anything—and his people loved him for it.”
Sorenson knew as much. His gumption—for a freshman legislator—was obnoxious bordering on reckless. When the state’s longtime U.S. senator, Chuck Grassley, was negotiating a health care package with Democrats in 2009, Sorenson asked for a private meeting. “If you vote for an Obamacare bill,” the first-term state representative told Grassley, a living Iowa legend, “I will primary you in 2010.”
Grassley ultimately voted against the Affordable Care Act, though Sorenson doubts he was the reason why. It was an empty threat anyway; Sorenson already had plans for 2010. Days after his 2008 victory, Sorenson had received a call from Terry Branstad, the venerable former Iowa governor who still controlled the state’s GOP establishment. Branstad said 2010 would be a better year for Republicans and suggested he challenge Staci Appel for her state Senate seat. To Branstad’s surprise, Sorenson said he’d already decided to do exactly that. “I had two goals when I got into politics: Beat Mark Davitt and beat Stacy Appel,” he recalls. “I didn’t really have any desire to serve in the House, and I definitely didn’t have any desire to serve in the Senate. I know it sounds crazy. But as soon as I won the House seat, I was running to win the Senate seat.”
It was no sure thing. Appel was the Senate’s assistant majority leader, a congresswoman-in-waiting with deep ties to the party establishment and a husband serving on the state Supreme Court. Appel had raised north of $300,000 for her 2006 campaign; Sorenson, by comparison, raised less than $50,000 for his 2008 House bid. But the newcomer was a force of nature. His power, consolidated in startlingly short order, was on display at the Iowa GOP convention in June 2010. Branstad, returning to the political arena, had survived a brutal primary to win the gubernatorial nomination over evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats. Branstad had chosen Kim Reynolds, a centrist state lawmaker, as his running mate, but Vander Plaats was challenging her at the convention. When the 1,349 delegates filed into the hall, they found letters on every seat, signed by Sorenson, endorsing Reynolds. She secured the lieutenant governor’s nomination a few hours later.
It was a power-play from Branstad and a flash of strategic pragmatism from Sorenson. Already in Republican circles there was speculation about the Tea Party sensation running for U.S. Senate in 2014, and now his alliance with Branstad gave him a foothold on both sides of the party’s ideological divide. It paid more immediate dividends: After giving less than $5,000 to his 2008 bid, the Iowa GOP dumped nearly $70,000 into his 2010 campaign. He didn’t really need it: Having united the party’s factions with an astonishing ease—championing the religious right, harnessing the structural support of the libertarian movement, and now, coopting the GOP elite—Sorenson demolished Appel by 18 points.
Three years removed from electoral anonymity, Sorenson was the hottest name in Iowa politics.
Email is one luxury that federal inmates enjoy, and for Sorenson it was both an outlet and an escape. As often as was allowed, he would seize an open computer—with the blessing of Dough Boy, whose crew controlled the media center—and fire off notes to Shawnee complaining of the prison’s subhuman standards and begging for updates from the outside world. The emails sparked parallel developments: Shawnee, horrified by her husband’s description of the MCC, began lobbying Grassley’s office to have her husband relocated; meanwhile, MCC officials monitoring the communication grew wary of the new inmate’s unflattering accounts.
Sorenson was wearing out his welcome—and fast. He got word that the warden was unhappy with his emails and annoyed at the assistance he continued to lend fellow inmates in filling out paperwork. And then, one day, he was pulled aside by a prison official: The MCC had been contacted by Grassley’s office, and Sorenson needed to sign a waiver giving the prison permission to discuss his status with a third party. (A spokesman for Grassley confirmed this account.) He scribbled his name at light speed. Sorenson would be leaving the MCC—but not as soon as he hoped. One day after he signed the waiver, the prison went on lockdown in response to a female guard being abducted and sexually assaulted. The lockdown dragged on for days, and Sorenson was left agonizing over whether a potential transfer had fallen through.
“Sorenson! You’re packing out!” The declaration came without warning, cutting through the fog of a florescent sunrise. The inmate called Senator jumped up, grabbed his few belongings and followed the guards. The destination was USP Thomson in Illinois. (When his fellow convicts heard, they offered him cookies that weren’t on the commissary list at his new residence; they would fetch a premium in trades.) The journey was three hours by bus, made sweeter and slower for Sorenson when the driver told him, “We weren’t supposed to make this trip until next week. Guess you’re special.”
It had been a long time since he felt “special.”
As the GOP presidential field took shape in early 2011, with nascent campaigns building out networks of activists, consultants and operatives, hardly anyone in Iowa was more coveted than Sorenson. He took meetings with former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty; Herman Cain, the onetime pizza CEO; former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum; former House Speaker Newt Gingrich; Congresswoman Michele Bachmann; and Ron Paul, whose Iowa team from 2008 was still largely intact. (Establishment favorite Mitt Romney, aiming for a strategically light footprint in Iowa, never reached out; Sorenson had no interest in helping the moderate Mormon anyway.)
All of these campaigns wanted him onboard, and Sorenson claims that all of them suggested payment in return for his endorsement and his services. The rules governing this established Iowa practice were somewhat arbitrary. For members of the state House, no restrictions existed on earning income from political work—they could take payments like any private citizen or campaign consultant. For members of the state Senate, however, an ambiguously worded guidance issued after the 2008 campaign forbade compensation from political action committees—the result of a rich history of Iowa state senators peddling their endorsements to the highest bidder.
Still, the new Senate rule seemed to many like a token suggestion. For decades in Iowa, everyone from elected officials to religious leaders to philanthropic activists have found ways to profit off the presidential caucuses. There was always a loophole, always a work-around. (It’s good work if you can find it; Romney aides recall paying a handful of neutral Iowans $10,000 per month in 2008 just to say positive things about him to the national press corps.) Ever since the presidential race began blasting off in Iowa—in 1972 for Democrats, 1976 for Republicans—money has been the rocket fuel. Campaigns buy the best office space, buy the best consultants, buy the best endorsements, and, in some cases, even buy votes on caucus night.
When the New York Times published a story in 2016 with the lead, “Is Iowa for sale?”—tied to the rumors of Republican old-timer Sam Clovis endorsing Donald Trump in exchange for a fat paycheck, despite harboring grave reservations about the candidate himself—insiders responded with a collective shrug. “Everything here is for sale,” says Steve Deace, a longtime conservative Iowa radio host and a close friend to Sorenson. “That’s how it’s done in Iowa. Whether it’s a Republican or a Democrat, you’re essentially buying people for their relationships and access.”
Here it’s worth emphasizing that while money buys relationships and access and networks, it doesn’t necessarily buy victories; Huckabee and Santorum were dead broke in 2008 and 2012, respectively, and both defeated wealthier opponents thanks to hustle and grassroots enthusiasm. And certainly, there are plenty of states with pay-to-play political cultures. But one state kicks off the presidential nominating process, and unique to Iowa are the accompanying plagues—consultants who prey on campaigns, lawmakers who aim to capitalize on their influence, candidates whose presidential dreams hinge on a top-three finish in the state, and a wild-west atmosphere that was tolerated for far too long.
Once upon a time, until it was cancelled in 2016, the biggest fundraiser for the Iowa GOP was the Ames Straw Poll, a trough of electoral venality for public consumption. Not only would campaigns bus in their subsidized supporters and cut cloak-and-dagger deals in hopes of winning the event—thus earning invaluable headlines and momentum—but the party itself was fueling the cash frenzy, holding an auction to allocate space at the fairgrounds. Whichever candidate paid the most money to the state party was awarded the biggest, most convenient lot—at an event that winnowed the field of candidates to lead the free world.
There are other conspicuous examples of the corrupting influence of money in the caucuses. Ethanol subsidies, a central economic issue in the state, has tainted Iowa politics for years. In 2016 the governor’s son, Eric Branstad, followed Ted Cruz around the state in an RV, paid for by the renewable fuels industry, harassing the Texas senator for his anti-subsidy position. A year earlier, as Wisconsin governor Scott Walker sat atop the Iowa polls, one of his top campaign aides was called to Eric Branstad’s office. Thinking it was a friendly invite, the aide was slack-jawed when the younger Branstad showed him the page proof of an advertisement that would run in the Des Moines Register slamming Walker unless he revised his own anti-subsidy stance.
It was in this environment that Sorenson found himself being courted by numerous campaigns, most of them offering payment through a consulting firm to keep the candidate’s hands clean. Sorenson wasn’t surprised by any of this. Iowa’s legislature is part-time, with lawmakers earning a salary of $25,000 plus benefits and a per diem; most of them had other jobs, and some did just fine for themselves by affiliating with industries that trafficked on their insider knowledge. Sorenson knew of the Senate rule but was told it was toothless. Besides, he needed the money. Sorenson was bringing in less income since stepping away from his business, but he had nonetheless moved his family onto a sprawling farm lot in Milo, 30 miles south of Des Moines. Politics was a full-time job, with travel around the state to broaden his following and boost his name identification, as he moved full speed ahead toward a U.S. Senate bid in 2014.
Sorenson wanted two things—an infusion of cash and a presidential apparatus that could be reactivated on his behalf two years later. Sorenson claims that Chuck Larson, a former Iowa lawmaker working for Pawlenty, offered him $10,000 per month. (Larson disputes this. “Kent wanted money, and I remember telling him it wasn’t an option because it wasn’t legal.”) Sorenson alleges that Cain’s campaign suggested $8,000 per month. (Former Cain officials did not respond to requests for comment.) He talked with Gingrich and Santorum as well, but Sorenson soon narrowed his decision to the two favorites: Paul and Bachmann.
Danny Wilcox Frazier for Politico Magazine
For an incarcerated Iowa farm boy , pulling into USP Thomson was a taste of home. There were no sirens encircling a maximum-security urban high-rise; just a flat campus of simple structures encased by emerald fields and country roads for miles in every direction. There was another welcome sign: white inmates. The federal prison system, Sorenson had learned, was catalogued almost entirely by race. And it had never escaped him, from the moment he stepped foot on the 19th floor at the MCC, that as a white man he was an unaffiliated soldier walking into a war between the Latinos and blacks. Arriving at USP Thomson and surveying the scores of white residents, he figured the racial tensions were now behind him.
That assumption proved ignorant. If anything, Sorenson thought after settling into USP Thomson, this place was more segregated. Maybe it was the larger white population; maybe it was the greater autonomy inmates had to roam the premises. But he was struck by the brightness of the racial lines. “It was like stepping back into the 1950s,” he recalls. Soon after he arrived, Sorenson found himself chatting with Officer Hanson, the head of USP Thomson’s Special Investigative Services, the B.O.P. branch that supervises both inmates and officers. Sorenson says he shared his observation about the degree of racial segregation at the MCC and admitted to being surprised at how pronounced it was at his new home. “Racism is good for the B.O.P.,” Hanson replied. “We use it to our advantage every day. The more they focus on hating each other, the less they focus on hating us.” (USP Thomson declined to make Officer Hanson available for an interview. The prison’s warden also declined to comment.)
Sorenson was blindsided by the remark. Quizzing Hanson further, he discovered that the officer wasn’t just describing efforts to head off a physical confrontation with inmates, but also efforts to preemptively undermine any coordinated push for better conditions and better treatment. The biggest concern for prison officials, Sorenson began to realize, wasn’t riots or violence; it was the airing of dirty laundry, tales of neglect and suppression that could make their way to the public. What Hanson was saying, Sorenson recalls, is that by obsessing over petty beefs and turf wars, the prison’s warring racial tribes could not make a coherent, organized case for reform.
Tribalism was not foreign to Sorenson.
At the time of his political rise, the Iowa GOP was being subdivided into three sects: libertarian, evangelical, and establishment. The latter two factions had long warred for control of the state party, but it was the “liberty movement” that was muscularly ascendant in 2008 thanks to Ron Paul’s iconoclastic campaign. Much of the underlying organization was imported into Iowa: It was the members of National Right to Work Committee (NRTWC), the anti-union group, who provided the money, the training, the infrastructure and the tactical expertise. Cultivating young politicians was paramount for the NRTWC crew. These relationships allowed them to appropriate a lawmakers’ political clout as well as their network of supporters. For NRTWC, it was an investment—not just to benefit future campaigns, but to grow their empire of affiliated groups that were raking in millions of dollars in digital solicitations on fighting everything from abortion to regulations to spending.
Sorenson, green and desperate for assistance in his 2008 campaign, walked unwittingly into this trap. Hardly a libertarian—save for his self-interested belief in legalizing marijuana—the rookie politician was, at his core, a classic Christian conservative. Yet he was in no position to turn down help. When the NRTWC cabal offered its services, promising entrée into the Paul grassroots powerhouse, he signed up. “It was Ron Paul Inc. and it was a cash cow,” Sorenson says. “They called it ‘running program.’ They would go find candidates, like me, and promise to ‘take care of you’ and help build a network in your state. … They travel around, they teach operative training classes, they use guerilla-style politics in state races. Then those networks are used to prop up their fictitious groups. They build out their email lists, they send out surveys and letters and requests for money to fight on issues, and it turns into a money-making machine.”
The NRTWC operation has been weakened, but the scheming continues: Campaign for Liberty, a group founded by Ron Paul and staffed by his loyalists, sent a fundraising email in May—signed by the former presidential candidate himself—alleging that Republican senators Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham were “teaming up with Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) to ram through one of the worst nationwide gun confiscation schemes ever devised.” Accompanying this utter falsehood were three requests for a “generous contribution.”
“None of these guys thought Ron Paul was going to be president,” Sorenson says. “It was all about making money.”
Republican presidential candidates gather before the Iowa Republican Party’s Straw Poll in Ames in 20111. | AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File
Sorenson didn’t think Paul would be president, either—but he definitely wanted to make money. He talked in early 2011 with Drew Ivers, who chaired Paul’s 2008 Iowa effort and was preparing for an encore. Sorenson was ready to work for Paul in 2012, but Ivers wasn’t interested. This caused tension between Ivers, running the Iowa operation, and the NRTWC players atop Paul’s national organization who badly wanted Sorenson. Ivers wouldn’t budge. “I didn’t want him as part of the campaign,” Ivers tells me. “It was a judgment of motive, character, modus operandi, standards, convictions.”
Sorenson was spurned, if somewhat relieved: He believed the Tea Party movement was more sustainable than the libertarian phenomenon, and this freed him to follow his natural instincts. Having met with Bachmann several times in early 2011, he concluded that she was, as the Weekly Standard crowned her, the “Queen of the Tea Party.” He signed on as her state chairman in March. It was hailed by Iowa insiders and national pundits as a significant coup for Bachmann, though some in the state whispered about potential red flags. “Even though he supported many of the positions we supported, he had this bull-in-a-china-shop mentality,” says Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition. “He struck me as arrogant and unethical.”
Team Bachmann heard the rumblings, but felt the rewards far outweighed the risks. “He was on top of Iowa. He had high name ID, he could deliver the social conservative vote, he knew everyone, and everyone knew him,” recalls Alice Stewart, who served as Bachmann’s communications director. “That said, he was known as the kind of politician who looked at everything as though the ends justify the means.” This perception was confirmed months into the campaign: Sorenson was involved in stealing an email list from the computer of a Bachmann staffer who worked for a homeschooling organization but was forbidden from using its resources for political purposes. The theft and deployment of the list provoked a crisis in the Iowa homeschooling community and resulted in an ugly lawsuit with gag-orders galore—an early indicator of malfeasance and dysfunction in the campaign.
Sorenson, for his part, was genuinely taken with Bachmann during their initial conversations. That didn’t last. “I think she’s a nice lady—she’d make a good grandmother. But I could never see her as a head of state,” he says. “She was kooky, unpredictable, tough to work with. A diva.” (Numerous attempts to reach Bachmann for comment were unsuccessful.)
All the while, Sorenson’s NRTWC friends—who had descended on Iowa—were unrelenting. They had been furious when Ivers spurned Sorenson, and even more so when their ally signed on with Bachmann. But when they heard murmurings of Sorenson having buyer’s remorse, the cunning commenced. Recognizing that scoring a defection from Bachmann would upend the race, they began to work over Sorenson, whispering that he had picked the wrong horse. It backfired—at least, initially. Looking ahead to the Ames Straw Poll in August as a cosmic clash between the forces of Paul and Bachmann, he poured himself into the effort, desperate to vindicate his decision and silence his friends. Bachmann prevailed, but it was a case of peaking too early. Texas Governor Rick Perry launched his presidential campaign the same day, stomping on Bachmann’s news cycle. The next evening, both candidates were slated to speak at a county Republican dinner. But Bachmann stayed on her bus while Perry spoke, refusing to enter the event until he finished, a breach of decorum (and an example of her unpredictability) that irritated attendees and sparked widespread negative news coverage.
With Bachmann’s campaign suddenly in a sharp downward spiral, Paul allies intensified their recruitment efforts. At church, at community events, at kids’ baseball games, they would remind Sorenson: “You should be with us. She’s done.” His resistance wore down. He was tired of Bachmann and exasperated with her campaign. They were frustrated with him, too: Sorenson had promised to deliver the support of prominent conservatives—activists, media personalities, pastors and other faith leaders—but he had mostly come up empty. “There was a lot of pressure on him,” Deace recalls. “Kent was pissed at me because I wouldn’t endorse Bachmann.”
There was a much bigger fish he couldn’t reel in: Vander Plaats. The evangelical chieftain, who since his failed 2010 gubernatorial run had launched a group called The Family Leader, was Iowa’s critical endorsement for those conservatives seeking the anti-Romney mantle. But he refused to tip his hand. Many believed this was because Vander Plaats wanted to back the winner, and thus was waiting to see who gained late momentum. But there was another theory: Vander Plaats needed money in exchange for his support and was patiently soliciting offers. Sorenson believes this was the case. “I was told that Bob Vander Plaats wanted $300,000 for his endorsement, and I know people on other campaigns who were also told that,” Sorenson tells me. He claims there was an informal agreement between officials with the Bachmann and Santorum campaigns to go public with Vander Plaats’ request, and that it abruptly fell apart—one day before Vander Plaats endorsed Santorum.
“Absolutely not true,” Vander Plaats tells me. “Didn’t that number used to be higher? I thought it was a million,” he says, laughing at the pay-to-play rumors that have long swirled around him. Indeed, numerous Iowa Republicans I spoke with said they heard a figure closer to $500,000, suggesting a ballooning urban legend. At the same time, four other 2012 campaign operatives confirmed hearing the amount of $300,000. One of them, a high-ranking Santorum aide, recalls the poorly funded candidate joking aloud, “Pay him? With what?”
In October, before a pumpkin farm event in Grinnell, Bachmann was told that a group of LGBT college students were protesting. Sorenson says she locked herself in the house on the property and refused to come out. (Stewart disputed this, saying Bachmann simply cut the event short.) The next morning, Sorenson called Dimitri Kesari, a diminutive high-ranking official with the NRTWC whose assistance he’d accepted when running for the legislature in 2008. Sorenson told Kesari he was thinking about quitting Bachmann’s campaign. Kesari relayed the message to other Paul advisers, including Jesse Benton, the Paul family political consigliere married to the candidate’s granddaughter; and John Tate, the campaign manager. On Halloween, Benton emailed Sorenson with the specifics of an offer to work for Paul; they would pay $7,500 per month, the same as Bachmann had paid him, and would also fly him to subsequent states after Iowa to serve as a campaign surrogate. The email sparked a two-month stretch of tortured internal conflict. Sorenson teetered back and forth, flirting capriciously with the Paul team while simultaneously suggesting to Bachmann officials that he might quit at any time—alienating both parties in the process. “I always called Michele flaky,” he says. “But I was being really flaky.”
The night after Christmas, with the caucuses closing in, Kesari met the Sorensons for dinner at Claxon’s Smokehouse and Grill in Altoona. Bachmann was toast, Kesari told them, polling at less than 10 percent—whereas Paul was on the verge of winning. A late endorsement from Sorenson could put him over the top. As the meal concluded, Kesari slid a check across the table. It was drawn from the account of a family-owned jewelry store—in the amount of $25,000. Dizzy with fear, Kent shook his head and excused himself to use the restroom. When he returned, Kesari and Shawnee were waiting with their coats on. The Sorensons drove home and Shawnee showed the check to her husband. More upset with himself than with his wife, Kent insisted that they would not cash the check—and that he was sticking with Bachmann. They argued late into the night.
Hanson’s words had shaken Sorenson . The racial callousness aside, he questioned why a prison official would confide so casually in an inmate. And then it occurred to him. “He thought I was a good old boy, a white Republican politician who would laugh along with him,” Sorenson says. In fact, he once might have. Sorenson freely admits that before entering the penal system, he had no time for the discussion of racial imbalances in America—the disparities in convictions and sentencing, the socioeconomic handicaps, the cyclical, cross-generational devastation of incarceration. “I thought it was all a bunch of media hype,” he says. “I don’t think I was racist—” he stops himself. “OK, maybe I was a little racist.”
His eyes opened, Sorenson sought an audience with the USP Thomson warden and demanded answers for what Hanson had told him. “What other employee in the federal government could get away with saying that?” Sorenson asked. The warden was dismissive. Soon after, Sorenson found himself in the crosshairs—watched warily by the guards, given unique treatment during certain situations. Once, when Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois toured the prison, Sorenson says officials quarantined him to an area Durbin would not visit, fearful that he would call out to the senator and receive an audience based on their shared profession.
The treatment didn’t faze Sorenson. He knew what it meant to be distrusted—and to feel like an outcast.
The morning after Kesari offered the check, Sorenson arrived at Bachmann’s campaign office feeling guilty. He had decided not to defect. Still, showing up at headquarters, greeting his comrades, Sorenson felt ashamed at having been so tempted—and having gone so far. He informed Kesari that morning that he was staying put; Kesari, in turn, told Benton and Tate that their prized recruit was getting “cold feet.” Benton exploded. “Fuck him,” he replied in an email. Later, Benton added, “Either he honors his commitment or we have to expose him as the money-grubbing shakedown artist that he is.”
Around that same time, Sorenson had broken down in tears at the Bachmann headquarters, sharing his secret with several campaign officials, including Michele’s husband, Marcus. His confession—the conversations, the dinner, the check—was met first with anger, and then, as the Bachmann aides realized how close Sorenson sounded to abandoning them, persuasion. They urged him to stick around. They reminded him of all they had been through together. They promised he would be taken care of long after the campaign—whether it was through a political action committee, or a consulting gig, or Bachmann’s congressional office. Relieved and reassured, Sorenson told them he wasn’t going anywhere.
His serenity was shattered a day later. Having risen early for a scheduled root canal, Sorenson arrived that afternoon in his hometown of Indianola for a Bachmann event. Still in discomfort and buzzing off painkillers, he stepped into the pizza joint and felt the eyes of everyone on him. Word had spread that he was threatening to quit the campaign—and that Paul was offering him money to switch teams. Everyone seemed to know, including Bachmann herself; there was no mistaking the glares in his direction. When the event ended, Sorenson rushed out to his car. Tamara Scott, the co-chair of Bachmann’s campaign, saw Sorenson leave and raced over to his vehicle. He lowered the window. “Are you OK?” she asked. Sorenson shook his head. “Please don’t do anything rash,” Scott said. He grimaced and sped away. It was the last time they ever spoke.
Sorenson pulled into the Iowa fairgrounds 30 minutes later and gazed at the cavernous pavilion. Paul was holding a rally inside. Six days remained before the caucuses. It was now or never. He grabbed his phone, having silenced it on the drive over to clear his head, and saw numerous missed calls—from Marcus and other campaign hands. Ignoring them, he dialed Kesari, who answered on the first ring. “You guys still want me?” Sorenson asked. Kesari came zooming out of the building. He grabbed Sorenson by the arm, yanking the man twice his size toward the pavilion. “So we’re good?” Sorenson asked, referencing the payment structure that had been discussed. “Oh yeah,” Kesari grinned.
Once inside, Kesari paraded Sorenson in front of the Paul campaign’s high command. They were shocked to see him. “Are you guys gonna take care of me?” Sorenson asked Benton. “You’re bleeding for us,” Benton responded. “We’ll take care of you.” Paul himself came over to greet him (though he later testified to being unaware of the payment scheme). Before he knew it, Sorenson was being swept toward the stage. Waiting there, wide-eyed, was Ivers—who had no knowledge of what the national staff had been up to. “It was my state, and my campaign, and they deliberately kept me in the dark,” he says. The Paul team wasn’t taking any chances: Once Sorenson spoke at the rally, there was no turning back. Ivers coughed up a quick introduction, then Sorenson was shoved onto the stage. “Um, tonight’s a little tough for me,” Sorenson said, looking colorless and confused. Stammering through an unrehearsed, 67-second homily, he concluded that switching from Bachmann to Paul was “difficult, but it’s the right thing to do.”
Sorenson, then an Iowa state senator, looks on as Republican presidential hopeful U.S. Rep Ron Paul (R-TX) speaks during a town hall meeting at the Sioux Center Public Library on December 30, 2011 in Sioux Center, Iowa. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
The moment was surreal for everyone involved—and for everyone who had ever been involved. “Never seen anything remotely like it,” recalls John Stineman, an Iowa GOP consultant who managed Steve Forbes’ 2000 race. “I’ve had friends who worked for three presidential campaigns in one cycle, but I’ve never seen anyone jump to a new one before the previous one ended.” Strawn said it was a singular moment in Iowa’s political history—and not in a good way. “It made us all look bad. Take it from the guy who was party chair, here I was spending every minute defending to the nation and the political class why Iowa gets to go first every four years. And this made it a hell of a lot harder.” Johnson, the longtime activist who served on the Iowa GOP central committee, says Sorenson’s switch “did far-reaching damage to the cause of Christian conservative activism in Iowa. It made it look like Christian conservatives’ endorsement was sale. I cannot tell you how much pain this moment caused us in Iowa.”
“It felt like a hallucination,” Sorenson recalls. “I was sleep-deprived, I was in a lot of pain, I was angry, I was upset.” Still, it was a weight off his shoulders. Sorenson thought that finally, it was over—he was rid of Bachmann, he was reunited with his Paul friends, and he was ready to enjoy the home stretch of the caucuses. No such luck.
Watch Kent Sorenson lie on CNN and Fox News
“Kent Sorenson personally told me he was offered a large sum of money to go to work for the Paul campaign,” Bachmann told reporters outside of her campaign bus, barely three hours after Sorenson’s speech. “Kent said to me yesterday that ‘Everyone sells out in Iowa, why shouldn’t I?’”
The split in Iowa political circles was immediate—between those who didn’t believe what Bachmann was accusing Sorenson of, and those who had no doubt it was true. “All these voters thought, ‘Oh, that’s crazy Michele Bachmann—the wheels are coming off her campaign, so she’s taking Kent down with him,’” says Nick Ryan, who was running Santorum’s super PAC in Iowa. “But most of us close to the caucuses knew Kent was getting paid and knew he wouldn’t switch for free.”
Sorenson, for his part, was shell-shocked. His phone exploded—friends, colleagues, reporters. He turned it off. He wanted to disappear. Heading to Paul’s headquarters the next morning, he readied a proposal—to work behind the scenes, stay out of the spotlight, refuse to become a distraction. They laughed him off. Sorenson was their eleventh-hour salvation. They needed him front and center, marketing his endorsement, selling Paul to every undecided caucus-goer for the next four days. Benton informed Sorenson that he would do two television interviews that day—one with CNN, one with Fox News—and to expect questions about Bachmann’s accusation. “I can’t lie on national TV,” he told them. “Everyone will see right through me.”
But lie he did—and see through him, everyone did. First on CNN, and then on Fox News, Sorenson delivered one of the most tragically unconvincing performances in the history of political theatre. On CNN, Natalie Allen reported Bachmann’s remarks and asked Sorenson if he was a “sellout.” He replied: “Absolutely not, Natalie. I, uh, you know, I, I, I, do not reco—I, I, have no—that conversation never happened.” The silver lining of that implosion was that he was speaking from a studio in Newton. Things were different two hours later when Sorenson joined Megyn Kelly for a live interview on Fox News. Standing just off a street in Des Moines, Sorenson struggled to focus on Kelly’s questioning as a black truck hoisting a “Bachmann for President” sign circled around him. He stuttered about his history with Paul. He called Romney a “frugal socialist.” He invoked the words of Wes Enos, a friend and Bachmann’s state director, who had come to Sorenson’s defense amid the payment allegations. (Sorenson says he still feels “sick” about lying to Enos and then utilizing his friend’s unwitting defense of him.) As the interview wound down, and Kelly’s interrogation intensified, Sorenson’s eyes shot from side to side. Pressed to clarify whether anyone affiliated with Paul had offered him money, he replied, “I was never offered a nickel from the Ron Paul campaign.”
It was rock bottom—or so he thought. “I became everything that I hated about politicians: the lying, the playing with words. ‘I didn’t take a nickel, technically , because I took 70 grand,’” he says in a self-mocking tone. “I knew what I was saying wasn’t true. I lied, and I justified the lie. It felt like there were hundred-dollar bills falling out of my pockets on live television and I was trying to shove them back in. I just wanted it all to end. I wanted out of that life.”
The routine became predictable at USP Thomson: Breakfast, free time, lunch, free time, dinner, card games that lasted until lights out. What began to gnaw at Sorenson, even in the lax atmosphere, was the lack of rehabilitation. USP Thomson is a facility for inmates who don’t pose a major security risk, those typically serving shorter sentences and thus ostensibly preparing to re-enter society. “But there’s nothing being done to help them, to educate them—literally, nothing,” he tells me. “There’s an English-as-Second-Language class in there once a week for about 40 minutes. Do you know what they use? ‘Walking Dead’ comic books. I’m not joking.”
Even more appalling, Sorenson adds, were the conditions: food that spoiled years ago, bathrooms that were wholly unsanitary, living quarters that stank of who knows what. He says the cereal they ate each morning was two years expired, with ants frequently spilling into their bowls and floating in the milk. “This is in the United States of America,” he says. “I was just dumbfounded.”
MCC, left, and USP Thomson, right. | AP Photos
Sorenson decided to act. He had Shawnee ship him copies of used homeschooling textbooks, passing them out to the younger, less literate inmates. He helped his comrades file grievance forms—free of charge, turning down macaroons (the prison’s official currency) when they were offered in return for his services.. He even worked to bridge racial divides. Sorenson couldn’t hope to transcend the prison’s color barriers—the white inmates still played Pinochle and the black inmates still played Spades—but he spent time with minority inmates whenever possible, absorbing their stories and empathizing more intimately with their circumstances. “Prison will make you more racist if you let it. But I wanted to learn about their issues,” he tells me. “I’m a small-town Iowa guy. You meet these guys from Chicago and you have no idea what they deal with. I was totally blind to their reality. You cross the wrong block and you get shot. You get shot for no reason at all. That doesn’t seem real to someone from small-town Iowa.”
The hardest story for Sorenson to stomach was that of a white man—Chad Nicholson, who was serving a 20-year sentence for a drug offense in his mid 20s. Nicholson was nine years in and clearly rehabilitated—a man of faith, of conviction, of remorse. But federal sentences require at least 85 percent of time served, meaning Nicholson, a father of two, would not see his children for at least another nine years. “Here’s a guy whose family can’t afford to drive out and visit. It costs $61 a month to use all your phone minutes, and he gets paid $20 a month,” Sorenson says. “They say if you’re incarcerated your children are seven times more likely to be incarcerated, and it’s killing our society. It’s crazy that when an inmate acts up, the first thing they do is take away phone calls. How does that help? You’re not just punishing inmates, you’re punishing kids who need to hear from their fathers. It’s disgusting.”
As Sorenson’s time at USP Thomson drew to a close, having been informed of early release to a halfway house, he promised Nicholson that he would help arrange visits from his family. He felt terrible for his friend. He spent sleepless nights questioning why Nicholson was still imprisoned. The only thing that vexed Sorenson more was the question of why he was imprisoned at all.
The year following his dramatic switch had been uneventful. Paul’s deflating third-place finish in the caucuses, joined with Sorenson’s calamitous cable news appearances, made the Iowa senator of little use to the presidential campaign. Sorenson pleaded with Benton and Kesari to make him work, to campaign alongside them, to do something. They mostly ignored him, save for the one thing he could uniquely help with: Sorenson traveled around meeting with potential congressional challengers, “running program” for the NRTWC. His duty was to talk them into their races, to promise that Ron Paul Inc. would take care of them. He recalls two targets in particular: Lee Bright, a state lawmaker in South Carolina; and Steve Stockman, a Texas congressman. Both went on to challenge incumbent Republican senators in 2014 primaries—Lindsey Graham and John Cornyn, respectively—and both got demolished. Their defeats only helped grow the Paul machine. “It’s a shell game,” Sorenson says. “They know these guys aren’t going to win. They’re making money off the races because of the email lists.”
The payments came as promised—$73,000 total between January and June of 2012, drawn from Paul’s presidential campaign account, funneled first through a dummy audio-visual production company and then into the coffers of Grassroots Strategy, Sorenson’s consulting firm. Yet there was little satisfaction for the Iowa senator. Romney had become the Republican nominee, Paul and his allies were treating him like a bad punch line and his colleagues in the legislature had begun keeping a contagious distance. Beneath all of this, Sorenson felt a lingering sense of dread—a hunch that the scandal wasn’t entirely behind him.
He was right. In January 2013, just over a year removed from the caucuses, Peter Waldron, a former Bachmann staffer with a mysterious past—he was a former pastor who had once been arrested in Uganda for terrorism charges—filed a complaint with the Iowa Senate. He alleged that Sorenson had violated the body’s rules by accepting payments from Bachmann and her affiliated political action committee. The Senate Ethics panel initially dismissed the complaint. But a few months later, with rumors of a potential federal investigation swirling, the committee appointed Mark Weinhardt, a prominent Iowa lawyer, as a special investigator to handle the case. Waldron then filed a second complaint with the committee in August—this one alleging that Sorenson had also taken improper payments from Paul’s operation.
The tension swelled as summer turned to fall, with the rumored federal probe now a certainty. One day in September, Kesari turned up at Sorenson’s house and asked his old friend whether he was wearing a wire. When Sorenson said no, Kesari asked him to prove it. Then, satisfied, he demanded back the $25,000 check he had given Shawnee nearly two years prior. (The Sorensons had never cashed it, and Kent was clinging to the check as potential evidence if needed.)
Sorenson’s implosion began in earnest later that month when Weinhardt deposed him, inquiring about suspicious sources of income listed in his tax returns. Sorenson lied—this time under oath—saying that he personally was not paid by any presidential campaign or political action committee. Sorenson tells me he said this on the advice of his attorney, Ted Sporer, who felt it was legally defensible because the money had been routed through the audio-visual company to Sorenson’s LLC, not directly to the senator himself. But this is disingenuous: Several of Sorenson’s friends recounted conversations shortly before his deposition in which they urged him not to mislead the special counsel. That he did so anyway speaks to Sorenson’s recklessness with the truth—a criticism that dogged him from his earliest days in the legislature—and to his naivete about the consequences.
The guillotine fell on October 2 when Weinhardt issued his report: It was “manifestly clear” Sorenson had gotten paid, the special investigator concluded. He had violated Senate rules—first by taking the money, then by perjuring himself.
This, to Sorenson’s friends and enemies alike, is the strangest aspect of his downfall—how maddeningly avoidable it was. “Kent earned that money from the campaigns. He worked for it. He should have just admitted it,” says Montgomery “Monty” Brown, who would later defend Sorenson in federal court. “He should have dared the Senate to impeach him for breaking a rule that Weinhardt himself said was ambiguous.” Ryan, the Santorum super PAC chief and a seasoned Iowa strategist, agrees. “The truth was not that controversial, because by then most people in Iowa knew the truth. It was the lie that brought him down. This wasn’t about corruption. It was about dishonesty.”
Sorenson resigned from the Senate hours after the report. He told allies that he was being railroaded, that it was a “witch hunt” conducted by his opponents. There was just enough pre-dawn glow in December of 2011 for Sorenson, ambling through his kitchen in response to a booming thud against the front door, to see yellow “FBI” lettering through the window. The raid of his house, in full view of his children, rid Sorenson of the notion that his lie had been harmless. Sorenson fired Sporer and hired Brown, a highly respected Iowa defense attorney. He wasted no time in their first meeting. “Kent, your previous counsel was incompetent,” Brown said. “You lied under oath. And you’re in deep shit.”
The ensuing three years were a blur. Sorenson cycled from terrified to angry to defiant, holding out his cooperation from investigators. In August 2014, with his dying father looking on, he pleaded guilty to obstructing justice and causing a campaign to file a false financial report. The charges carried up to 25 years in prison. Around that same time, on a parallel investigative track, Benton and Tate were called in for questioning—and gave false statements to the FBI, denying that Sorenson had been paid by the campaign. With his former comrades on the hook, and staring down a long prison sentence, Sorenson turned state’s witness. He implicated Benton, Tate and Kesari in the payment scheme, leading to a federal indictment in August 2015 that contained charges against all three men. Sorenson wound up testifying on several separate occasions—before a grand jury and in court trials—and when the dust settled from the endless legal proceedings, all three were convicted of, among other things, causing false campaign expenditure reports and conspiracy to cover it up with false statements. Tate and Benton received probation; Kesari was sentenced to three months in prison.
All the while, Sorenson’s own sentencing was repeatedly delayed due to his cooperation. It was an uneasy time. In the fall of 2014, while negotiating his deal with the feds, Sorenson violated the terms of his pre-sentencing probation by testing positive for marijuana—the first of multiple failed tests. (Sorenson insists he really had quit, but says his fatty cells were saturated with THC from years of chronic use.) In an alternate script, November 2014 would have represented the climax of Sorenson’s political rise: winning a U.S. Senate seat that many Iowans still believe was his for the taking. Instead, as Republican nominee Joni Ernst won the general election that fall, Sorenson was burying his father and awaiting federal sentencing. “I had finally turned a corner in my life and made him proud of me, and then I threw it all away,” Sorenson says, tears filling his eyes. “The last thing I whispered to him was, ‘It’s all going to go away.’ I wanted him to pass in peace not worrying about me.”
The following spring, he defaulted on the mortgage of his family’s previous home, in Indianola, which they still owned. A few months later, he was hit with bank petitions for not paying off his rising credit card debts. Things were falling apart. Kent and Shawnee started drinking heavily and fighting often. Things got ugly in July 2015 when Kent broke some difficult news to her: The feds had seized his computer drive containing years of explicit photos they had taken as husband and wife. Those photos were now part of the evidence package available to both prosecutors and the defense attorneys for Benton, Tate and Kesari. Drunk and infuriated, Shawnee attacked Kent, they both tell me, and Kent made contact with her in self-defense. The police found Shawnee crying and intoxicated walking alone down a county road. They saw redness around her eye and she gave them permission to enter their home. After knocking, the cops entered through an open window—only to be confronted by Sorenson in a hallway. Enraged, he screamed that they were not allowed in his house—and refused to remove his hands from his pockets when they so ordered. The potentially fatal standoff ended when Sorenson surrendered to being handcuffed. He was charged with domestic abuse. During the drive to the police station, he wept and slammed his head into the cruiser’s metal cage.
Sorenson, right, arrives for his sentencing hearing Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017, at the federal courthouse in Des Moines, Iowa. | Michael Zamora/The Des Moines Register via AP
All of this was fair game to be used against Sorenson when he was finally sentenced in January 2017. Federal judges are free to consider the totality of a defendant’s actions, even those not germane to the case at hand, when deciding their fate—latitude that’s colloquially known as “the kitchen sink.” Yet there was cause for optimism. The domestic incident had been pleaded down to disorderly conduct. Neither it, nor the failed drug tests, were mentioned in the prosecutors’ pre-sentencing report. The best news of all: The feds were recommending probation and community service. They believed Sorenson’s assistance with their investigation, and his repeated testimony against the others, had set a valuable example of defendant cooperation.
Judge Robert Pratt wanted to set a different sort of example. Calling the Iowa senator’s actions “the definition of political corruption,” he sentenced Sorenson to 15 months in prison. When I ask Monty Brown how common it was for a judge to ignore the prosecutors’ recommendation of probation, he measures his words. “We’re not in Las Vegas, but it’s very unusual,” he says. “In federal court, over the last 25 years, maybe once. It doesn’t happen very often.” For this reason, Sorenson believes Pratt, a Democrat appointee with close ties to longtime Senator Tom Harkin, had “political motivations” for sending him to prison. “He knows the two Democrats I beat,” Sorenson says. “I got screwed because of it.”
In his chambers this summer, Pratt tells me he struggled with Sorenson’s sentence. “The southern district of Iowa is not the southern district of New York,” he says. “We don’t get many political corruption cases here.” Pratt says he studied similar federal cases and felt that despite Sorenson’s cooperation, the former lawmaker needed to be held to a higher standard as an elected official than his co-conspirators. What about Sorenson’s charge of partisan payback? “I’m offended by the suggestion of it,” Pratt says. “Deeply offended.”
The long sentence, which was upheld by the 8 th Circuit Court, was shocking enough. Then came the notification from the Bureau of Prisons: Sorenson was to self-report to the MCC. Everyone—Sorenson, Brown, even Pratt—was floored. “His placement at that Chicago facility was ridiculous,” Brown says. “I would imagine that his domestic abuse case, even though it got changed to a disorderly conduct, somehow suggested violence. That’s the only thing I can think of. He should have gone to a work camp in South Dakota.” Pratt adds, “I was surprised he went to a maximum facility, because he was allowed the privilege of self-reporting. I’d say 85 to 90 percent of the people we sentence don’t get the privilege of self-reporting.”
Indeed, when Sorenson showed up at the Chicago prison in March 2017, ready to begin his sentence, officials there were confused. They had never heard of anyone self-reporting to the MCC. “Sir,” an officer said to Sorenson, “nobody turns themselves in here.”
Photo by Danny Wilcox Frazier for Politico Magazine
The halfway house knows Sorenson is running late , and the snowstorm is blinding by the time we pull out of the rest stop. Sorenson looks more relaxed now, wearing blue jeans and a dark gray sweatshirt, but he seems uneasy. “All that yellow and red in there—it’s crazy,” he says, referring to the Wendy’s restaurant we just visited. “It’s been a while since I saw anything that wasn’t white, black or gray.” Adding to the vertigo is the constant ringing and beeping of his wife’s phone. The kids are desperate to talk to their dad, but the car ride and the reporters’ questions are already overwhelming him. A combination of snow flurries and ice pebbles are attacking the windshield. Sorenson just wants to get to the Fort Des Moines, his new home for the next three months.
It will represent a leap of progress—one degree removed from the Bureau of Prisons, one step closer to his family. He has missed them terribly. He has so much planned for once they are reunited—dinners, discussions, vacations (within the geographic limits of his parole). He wants to start over, to put the nightmarish events of the past seven years permanently behind them. “Maybe we should move,” he tells Shawnee. “It would be a fresh start.” She shakes her head. Iowa is home. Moreover, it’s the best place for Kent to find work—and he knows it. “I’m a 45-year-old ex-con without a job,” he says. “All I want to do is provide, be a husband and a father.” He pauses. “And I want to find a way to help those men in prison.”
We pull into the Fort Des Moines, a constellation of two-story brick structures, nearly an hour past Sorenson’s due time. The snowfall is much lighter here. Climbing out into the 12-degree chill, he tells me he looks forward to visiting again in April when he’s set to be released to home supervision. I wish him good luck, and he sets off with Shawnee, hand in hand, plodding toward the entrance with their heads angled downward to avoid the gashing winds.
Things began looking up for Sorenson. Staff at the halfway house, known simply as “the Fort,” were friendly and accommodating. With help from Shawnee he put together a resume—the first in his life—and, to his surprise, was hired almost immediately by a commercial cleaning company not unlike the one he formerly owned. With employment secured, Sorenson was given considerable autonomy—he could go to work each day, see family on the weekends, run errands if needed, as long as he was checking in at the appointed times and playing by the rules. The transition was easier than he could have imagined. Sorenson was humming along, the light at the end of the tunnel suddenly bursting into full view, his dream of starting over and restoring his family’s bond tantalizingly close to becoming reality.
And then, while at work on the afternoon of February 15, his phone rang. It was his case manager. “You need to get back to the halfway house as soon as possible,” the voice said. Sorenson asked what was going on. “Kent,” the voice answered. “You need to get back to the halfway house as soon as possible.” He jumped in the car, fear flooding his heart. He knew he hadn’t done anything wrong, but something wasn’t right. Then his phone rang again. It was his daughter. “He did it, Dad. He did it,” she wailed. Sorenson knew immediately. The night before, he had been on the phone with his daughter-in-law, who warned him that her husband, Kent Jr., was talking about killing himself. They agreed to stage an intervention the following day.
But it was too late. The 24-year-old married father of two had been struggling with his studies at Iowa State University and seemed distant in recent conversations with his father. Sorenson’s top priority, once released from the halfway house, was reconnecting with Kent Jr. and helping him navigate this rough patch. Now he was gone.
I learned of this from Shawnee when I called in late March to check on Kent’s progress and schedule a date to visit them. She was emotionally wrecked but unfailingly polite, explaining the situation and telling me that her husband would need some time to process the incident. She gave me his cell phone number and recommended that I call back in another month or so.
Waiting a bit longer, I tried Sorenson in early May. No answer. Texts, calls, nothing. Weeks went by. Worried, I backed off. Then, on a Sunday night, the phone rang. “I’m sorry. I’ve kind of been avoiding you,” Sorenson said quietly. I told him not to worry, asked how he was doing. “I’m OK,” he murmured. A long silence. “We used to be such a happy family,” he said. We talked a bit, and he asked for more time before I visited to complete the interview. I agreed. “You know, it’s weird,” Sorenson said, more to himself than to me. “This put into perspective how easy prison was. I would do another 20 years if I could get him back for one more day.”
On a perfect summer afternoon , Sorenson is back where it all began. We’re on the steps of the state capitol in Des Moines and he’s reconstructing his downfall, trying to pinpoint when and how everything began to fall apart. He was a “jerk” in the legislature, someone who “didn’t show Christ-like behavior” and was “arrogant” about his political celebrity. But the roots of his ruin go deeper—to the decision to enter politics in the first place. If anything, Sorenson says, the genesis of his demise can be traced to these very steps, to that rally 10 years ago, when he felt so moved to oppose gay marriage that he called out his local legislators and committed himself to their defeat.
“Politics was a waste of my life,” he says, shaking his head. The greater irony, he adds, is that same-sex marriage is now the law of the land—and it doesn’t bother him one bit. “If we’re secure in our faith as Christians, why should we care? It’s not like my kids are going to start wearing rainbow flags,” he says. “You can’t legislate morality. I spent so much time opposing same-sex marriage, and now, looking back, it’s like, why?” It’s not the only issue he feels differently about. Once the Iowa legislature’s champion for capital punishment, Sorenson is now adamantly opposed to the death penalty. “After going through what I went through, I’m fearful of putting anyone’s life in the hands of a judge,” he tells me. “I just don’t believe in the justice system like I used to.” (When I visited with Judge Pratt in his chambers, he explained that weighing the impact on family is the toughest part of sentencing. When I told Pratt of Kent Jr.’s suicide, the judge’s face went white. “Oh,” he whispered, visibly shaken. “That’s just what I needed to hear. Thanks a lot.”)
It’s late June and we’re finally completing our interview. After the May phone call, Sorenson disappeared again—this time for such an extended stretch I feared he wouldn’t resurface. But he finally did, apologizing once more for avoiding me, promising that he was now ready to talk. As we stroll the grounds of the capitol, he is reflective about the polarity of his experiences. “You know, I trust the guys in prison more than I trust the guys in the legislature,” he says. “I watched a senator steal oxycontin from an older senator who was suffering from breast cancer and later died. I had a Montblanc pen stolen off my desk in the chamber. But I never locked my locker in prison. If I gave someone a scoop of coffee, on commissary day, there was a scoop of coffee waiting for me.”
The reaction to his son’s death only confirmed his feelings about the respective institutions. Hardly any of his former colleagues reached out to Sorenson with condolences. Yet a few weeks after Kent Jr. passed, without any idea of how the word could have gotten to USP Thomson, Sorenson received a sympathy card in the mail with handwritten notes from dozens of his former inmates. The effort had been organized by Nicholson—who, Sorenson later learned, lost 21 days of “good time” from his sentence because he had communicated with a paroled convict.
The card reminded Sorenson, however oddly, of happier times. “I don’t miss prison. I don’t want to go back. But there’s a simplicity about it,” he says. “A year without a cell phone. A year without TV. A year without the Drudge Report. There was some solitude in that. And I miss playing Pinochle with the homeboys.”
The tattoo in in memory of Sorenson’s late son. | Danny Wilcox Frazier for Politico Magazine
Sorenson treasures the card they sent. It’s a reminder of the pain he has endured, but also of the goodness that persists. He has another such reminder: a fresh tattoo on his left forearm honoring Kent Jr., with the initials “KES” embossed over a raven (symbolizing brilliance and tragedy) perched on an hourglass (the fragility of time) with a backdrop of mountains (his son loved to climb). I spot another tattoo farther up his arm. It’s prison ink, a drawing of his wife’s face courtesy of a friendly Latin King. Below it, on the inside of his bicep, is another—this one copied in his father’s penmanship from a handwritten note before he passed away: “I will always be there son. I love you. Dad.”
Sitting in a corner booth a few hours later, at a restaurant by the airport, Sorenson grasps for catharsis. His voice is weak. His eyes are watery. His parmesan-encrusted strip steak is getting cold. Composing himself after a long cry, Sorenson wonders aloud about the connection between his incarceration and his son’s suicide—if any. He and Shawnee have asked for a medical examination, questioning whether a brain injury he suffered during a sports incident might have contributed. The awful likelihood is that Sorenson will never have the answers about his son’s death. All that he has, for the time being, is grief and guilt. “Looking back, my biggest regret is I let politics consume me,” he says. “When I’m on my death bed, I’m not going to look back and say, ‘Boy, I’m glad I ran for the Senate.’ It’s going to be, ‘I wish I tucked my kids in more. I wish I was with my son for the last year of his life.’”
Sorenson is done with politics. He hasn’t communicated with his co-conspirators since testifying against them; all three lost appeals this summer to have the felonies expunged from their records. (Attempts to reach Kesari and Tate were unsuccessful; Benton told me by email, “I have leaned on my faith, forgiven and moved on.”) Sorenson tells me that he expects Benton to eventually be pardoned, courtesy of the president’s friendship with Rand Paul.
As for Iowa’s role in picking presidents, Sorenson says, “The caucuses are a curse on our state. It’s a corrupt fiasco that perverts the policy and the politics here. … It’s an environment that cultivates shady dealings. I got campaign contributions from every presidential candidate you can think of when I was in the legislature. They all send that money to Iowa legislators for a reason. It’s an honor to vote first in the nation. But our state would be better off without it.”
Photo by Danny Wilcox Frazier for Politico Magazine
Having experienced an odyssey unlike any other in modern political history, Sorenson says he is equipped with a new set of convictions—though most of them are not inherently political. The most important lessons learned along his journey, Sorenson says, are “don’t take anything for granted” and “give people the benefit of the doubt.” Being incarcerated taught him both. “When I first got to prison, I looked at people and judged them. But then I got to know them, who they were, and they were nothing like they first appeared. Don’t throw people away.”
He wants nothing more in the future than to help those who have been thrown away. He is following the news of lawmakers building the case for both prison reform and sentencing reform. And he sees the serendipity in the fact that Grassley, of all people, is the Judiciary Committee chairman who is pushing for major changes in the criminal justice realm. But lending his voice to the effort won’t be easy. Sorenson is perhaps Iowa’s most recognizable criminal. When we go to eat—at a nice steakhouse, one he frequented as a legislator—he requests the far corner booth. It wasn’t until later that I realized he wanted to face away from the dining room.
For all the infamy that will follow him, it’s fair to wonder how many people will realize that Sorenson was less the Machiavellian schemer and more the political neophyte who got in over his head—a cautionary tale for Iowa’s next crop of ambitious politicians. “Kent is Icarus,” Brown, his attorney, tells me. “Way too close to the sun.”
Sorenson wants to get involved in the push for prison reform, and knows he’ll have to get used to the circus-freak stares. “I’m really not sure how I’d be perceived by people, especially people in politics,” he says. “But I made a promise to the guys in prison. They told me, ‘So many guys say they’re going to do something to help us once they get out, and they never do.’ If I can take the bad I’ve experienced, and turn it into good, that’s all I want.”
But first, Kent Sorenson has a more pressing task: salvaging a shred of hope from the wreckage of his life. His remaining five children are crushed; his two grandchildren are without a father; his wife is grasping for some semblance of normalcy. Before he can help anyone else, he has to help them. “This was supposed to be a year of restoration for my family. I don’t know if we’ll ever get the restoration that we hoped for,” he says. “Right now, I’m just trying to put my life back together.”
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