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The Muckraker

Will Evans's Blog
Will Evans | Update: Money and Politics | November 17, 2008

Ad-ing it all up

The game is over. Some won, some lost, and a lot of people laid down their money.

Scores of independent groups went into hyperdrive for this election, reaching millions of people with some of the most vicious attack ads of the year. We saw new groups pop up out of nowhere; we saw old groups go to unprecedented lengths to help their candidates of choice; and we saw organized labor, corporate America and the partisan wealthy flood them all with money. For the last few months, we've tracked their moves at the Secret Money Project. We hope our reporting helped illuminate the sometimes-opaque forces of influence, and serves as a resource in the future.

While independent groups mostly stayed a sidenote during the campaigns -- particularly the heavily financed presidential contest -- they did leave their marks.

  • American Issues Project produced an ad in August that linked Senator Obama to one-time anti-war militant Bill Ayers. It kept Ayers in the mix as a campaign issue at a time when Sen. John McCain's organization wasn't ready to take that step.

  • At virtually the same time, the liberal Brave New Films made a viral video raising questions about McCain's multiple homes. The video led a print reporter to ask McCain about the real estate, and the candidate flubbed the answer, creating a new campaign issue.

  • The Clarion Fund inundated the presidential swing states with a DVD called "Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against the West." It was a classic example of the murky space between campaigning and issue advocacy that many of these groups occupy. NPR listeners and npr.org readers told us about the DVD, and we give them our profuse thanks. All of them all told us the video seemed meant to promote McCain. As for the Clarion Fund, it hired a new public relations firm after we aired our broadcast story. But it never clarified its financing or activities -- as, indeed, it had no need to; the fund is a 501(c)(3) charity with minimal disclosure requirements. People speaking for the fund insisted there was no partisan agenda, and said they had distributed 28 million copies of the DVD in key election states only to attract the attention of reporters covering the race.

  • The biggest player among these groups was the Service Employees International Union, and sometimes it seemed to reach everywhere in the liberal establishment. And long before the election, SEIU had already budgeted $10 million to hold their favored candidates accountable to the union's agenda in 2009.

    But figuring out what impact the groups actually had on the campaigns is a tricky proposition. For one thing, the mish-mash of tax rules, campaign finance laws and Supreme Court decisions made it impossible to know precisely how much money they spent. We gave it a good try here, by adding together all the money that groups reported spending on election-related communications since July:

    PRESIDENTIAL RACE

    Conservative Groups: $40.9 million

    Liberal Groups: $53.1 million

    SENATE RACES

    Conservative Groups: $40.4 million

    Liberal Groups: $29.6 million

    This is a vast undercount, since many groups only have to report election ads that show up on TV or radio or that explicitly say to vote for or against a candidate.We recorded $4.2 million for MoveOn.org, for example, while the group engaged in plenty of other activities and said in a press release that it spent more than $30 million overall.

    Chalk it up to a system that, for better or worse, doesn't require vast amounts of election-related activity to be reported. Money, in any case, doesn't necessarily equal impact. Many organizations spent big on mobilizing their members and getting out the vote, and that counts for something.

    But what about those attack ads? All ads and groups are measured nowadays against the standard of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the 2004 group that wounded Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry's aspirations. Nobody achieved Swift Boat status this year, though some tried hard, on the left (Brave New PAC) and right (National Republican Trust and American Issues Project).

    Perhaps the media, which hyped the Swift Boat group in 2004, learned their lesson and avoided giving any attack too much credit, theorizes John Geer, an expert on negative advertising at Vanderbilt University. Tom Matzzie, a Democratic strategist, has his own diagnosis: that the Internet has made it too easy to fact-check dishonest ads. Conservative operative Chris LaCivita, who went from Swift Boat Veterans in 2004 to American Issues Project this year, says it was just money. He says AIP simply couldn't raise enough from big donors after Wall Street crashed.

    And maybe attack groups never got a direct shot at a candidate's core message. The Swift Boat ads took aim at Kerry's war record, which he was running on. But this year, when the economy became the main issue for voters, attacks on Senator Obama's nefarious "associations" or McCain's health seemed less relevant.

    Plus, Senator Obama buried McCain and his allies with the biggest pot of money ever spent on an election. "With Obama's fundraising advantage, all the 527s kinda got crowded out," Geer says. "We're going to go to a system where the next presidential candidates are both going to have to raise so much money...that all of the sudden these people who are funding these 527s have to think about whether it's worth putting their money down."

    An interest group's goal is not only to help a candidate win, but also to ingratiate itself with the politician or party, says Steve Weissman, of the Campaign Finance Institute. Even if labor unions and such groups as MoveOn.org and Planned Parenthood didn't necessarily tip the election to Senator Obama, they dedicated a vast amount of money and resources to his cause, and now can hope that he feels indebted to them.

    Let's take a look at who racked up some chits. (Click on the links to watch the groups' ads and read about their funding and leadership.)

    PRESIDENTIAL RACE

    **Liberal Groups**

    1. SERVICE EMPLOYEES INTERNATIONAL UNION = $23,107,433

    2. UNITED AUTO WORKERS = $4,860,571

    3. MOVEON.ORG = $4,185,821

    4. AFSCME = $2,312,723

    5. PLANNED PARENTHOOD ACTION FUND = $2,096,495

    6. ADVANCING WISCONSIN = $2,094,687

    7. AMERICAN FEDERATION OF TEACHERS = $1,997,375

    8. PROGRESSIVE FUTURE = $1,496,323

    9. SIERRA CLUB = $1,213,068

    10. HEALTH CARE FOR AMERICA NOW = $1,132,085

    11. NARAL PRO-CHOICE AMERICA = $1,117,991

    12. DEFENDERS OF WILDLIFE ACTION FUND = $1,021,241

    **Conservative Groups**

    1. NATIONAL RIFLE ASSOCIATION = $6,946,238

    2. NATIONAL REPUBLICAN TRUST = $6,592,925

    3. VETS FOR FREEDOM = $4,596,149

    4. NATIONAL RIGHT TO LIFE = $4,504,422

    5. LET FREEDOM RING = $3,257,939

    6. AMERICAN ISSUES PROJECT = $2,878,873

    7. REPUBLICAN MAJORITY CAMPAIGN = $1,851,120

    8. FOCUS ON THE FAMILY ACTION = $1,332,862

    9. RIGHTCHANGE.COM = $1,318,691

    10. REPUBLICAN JEWISH COALITION = $1,267,002

    11. COMMITTEE FOR TRUTH IN POLITICS = $1,192,510*

    12. NATIONAL CAMPAIGN FUND = $1,167,810

    *The total for the Committee for Truth in Politics is an estimate by the Campaign Media Analysis Group. The group argues in a pending lawsuit that it doesn't have to report its expenditures.

    The biggest spenders on the left were obviously labor unions. George Soros -- who made himself a political lightning rod by bankrolling anti-Bush groups in 2004 -- in this cycle gave $3.5 million to Fund for America, $1 million to America Votes, about half a million to other liberal groups, and that's all that we know of. Hollywood producer Steve Bing also spent $2.5 million on the Fund for America, and about a million more on other pro-Democratic groups.

    On the right, pharmaceutical executive Fred Eshelman apparently outspent Soros, dumping $5.5 million into his anti-Obama 527, RightChange.com. Other conservative megadonors include Texas businessman Harold Simmons, who gave $2.9 million to American Issues Project, and retired physician John Templeton Jr., who gave at least $2.7 million to Let Freedom Ring.

    In contrast, a few conservative political action committees were able to raise remarkable sums via strictly regulated small donations. The National Republican Trust, for example, reported spending an incredible $6.6 million on the election, despite being founded in September.

    Now, shifting to congressional races ...

    We set out to cover Senate races, figuring that several contests could be pivotal to the chamber's makeup next year, while the House was clearly destined to become more Democratic. Outside groups saw it that way too, and piled into Senate contests as the election drew near. Weissman says independent groups focused more on congressional races than in 2004. In some of the closest contests, outside groups with huge warchests had the potential to make a significant difference, he says. (See our chart of groups below.)

    And speaking of collecting chits, the pharmaceutical industry, under the guise of America's Agenda: Health Care for Kids, went so far as to spend millions on incumbents of both parties -- many of them in completely safe seats. Surely a good way to make friends in Congress.

    A popular strategy on the left was funneling union money through independent 527s to produce attack ads. Unions produced their own ads, but they also provided almost all the funding for Patriot Majority to blitz key Senate races. Union money flowed to Citizens for Strength and Security, Majority Action, Campaign Money Watch -- all of them 527s that report their contributions.

    On the right, this election cycle saw the creation of several new 501(c)(4) nonprofits, which don't have to disclose their donors, focusing on congressional races. High-powered examples include the Employee Freedom Action Committee and American Future Fund, as well as Coloradans for Economic Growth and American Energy Alliance. Freedom's Watch also fits the bill, though we know it's bankrolled by casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. Of course, Americans for Job Security has been doing this for years, and appears to be unfazed by a complaint to the Internal Revenue Service that it's violating its tax status.

    Weissman, in a recent report on independent groups, points to the increasing popularity of 501(c)(4) advocacy groups and 501(c)(6) trade associations on the right and the left as a major trend of this election season.

    "The impact," he tells us, "is that there's more ads out there that you don't quite know who's behind them."

    That's why we started the Secret Money Project, to help shed some light on the groups trying to influence your vote. We hope it's proved enlightening.

    -- Will Evans and Peter Overby

    SENATE RACES

    **Liberal Groups**

    1. PATRIOT MAJORITY = $5,171,393

    2. AMERICA'S AGENDA: HEALTH CARE FOR KIDS = $4,403,124

    3. SERVICE EMPLOYEES INTERNATIONAL UNION = $2,662,464

    4. CAMPAIGN MONEY WATCH = $2,357,409

    5. AMERICAN RIGHTS AT WORK = $2,300,049

    6. LEAGUE OF CONSERVATION VOTERS = $1,626,664

    7. NATIONAL EDUCATION ASSOCIATION = $1,328,032

    8. AFSCME = $1,291,950

    9. CITIZENS FOR STRENGTH AND SECURITY = $1,163,352

    10. ALLIANCE FOR A BETTER MINNESOTA = $1,077,453

    11. MAJORITY ACTION = $1,025,276

    12. PLANNED PARENTHOOD ACTION FUND = $1,016,052

    **Conservative Groups**

    1. U.S. CHAMBER OF COMMERCE = $13,251,304

    2. FREEDOM'S WATCH = $5,577,688

    3. AMERICANS FOR JOB SECURITY = $5,279,833

    4. EMPLOYEE FREEDOM ACTION COMMITTEE = $3,528,389*

    5. AMERICAN FUTURE FUND = $1,610,238

    6. NATIONAL FEDERATION OF INDEPENDENT BUSINESS = $1,307,147

    7. CLUB FOR GROWTH = $1,122,889

    8. NATIONAL RIFLE ASSOCIATION = $1,079,801

    9. AMERICAN MEDICAL ASSOCIATION = $922,000

    10. AMERICA'S AGENDA: HEALTH CARE FOR KIDS = $879,660

    11. AMERICAN ENERGY ALLIANCE = $777,092

    12. COLORADANS FOR ECONOMIC GROWTH = $670,562

    *The Employee Freedom Action Committee's total is an estimate by the Campaign Media Analysis Group, since the group didn't have to file government reports on its expenditures. For example, the group ended its ad campaigns in Senate races just before the reporting requirements clicked in. Its ads after that didn't mention candidates by name, again avoiding filing requirements.

    METHODOLOGY: We compiled our totals using Federal Election Commission filings by groups on their independent expenditures (messages explicitly advocating the election or defeat of a candidate) and electioneering communications (broadcast ads mentioning a candidate close to the election). Our starting date was July 1, the beginning of the first month after the presidential primaries ended. When an organization had an affiliated PAC, 527 and 501(c)(4), we added all the money together. We also combined the spending of unions and their locals, as well as national groups with their state affiliates. When a group reported one bulk expenditure for presidential, Senate and House ads, we tried to approximate the split. Our totals are certainly an undercount. Here are some reasons why: Massive voter mobilization efforts aren't counted. Some groups may have not reported independent expenditures, claiming they didn't expressly advocate for a candidate. Some other groups appeared to tailor their campaigns to avoid reporting requirements. Even with the numbers we do have, some groups filed inaccurate or incomplete reports. So don't take this as a full accounting, but rather a window into the world of independent groups, given the level of transparency that we currently have.

    This originally appeared on The Secret Money Project Blog, a joint project of CIR and National Public Radio tracking the hidden cash in the 2008 election.

  • Will Evans | Update: Money and Politics | November 7, 2008

    Fat lady hasn't sung in Georgia

    And you thought you were done with political ads on TV. Well, not if you're in Georgia.

    Because Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) seems stuck below the 50-percent mark in Tuesday's balloting, the race under state law seems destined for a December run-off. Freedom's Watch doesn't have much going on these days, and it isn't wasting any time.

    The group—which, depending on how you see it, either failed to fend off Democratic takeovers in Congress or succeeded in preventing worse Republican losses—has a new ad trashing Jim Martin, the Democrat challenging Chambliss.

    "Jim Martin says he's a champion of lower taxes," the ad says. "I guess that must have been another Jim Martin who criticized a $100 million tax cut plan for Georgia families ... His evil twin maybe? Or just the same old tax-and-spend Martin policies."

    Both candidates also bought air time for their own ads. And so it continues ...


    This originally appeared on The Secret Money Project Blog, a joint project of CIR and National Public Radio tracking the hidden cash in the 2008 election.

    Will Evans | Update: Money and Politics | November 7, 2008

    What they don't want you to know

    Now that it's over, we can look back and ponder which independent groups might have had an impact on the election, which attack ads left a mark, and who might have blown millions of dollars.

    But there's at least one group that doesn't want us to know anything. It's in court, suing to strike down the disclosure requirements that tell us who runs ads near an election, how much gets spent and, sometimes, who puts up the cash.

    The Committee for Truth in Politics was launched by a North Carolina Republican operative in late September, and spent $1.2 million on anti-Obama ads. Here's one that criticized Obama's abortion stance and another that falsely accused him of supporting early release for sex offenders.

    The ads aired in the midst of the general election campaign, but the committee hasn't reported anything about them. We know only because we subscribe to the Campaign Media Analysis Group, which has developed a sophisticated system to track ads on TV and estimates how much they cost.

    The committee, represented by Republican lawyer extraordinaire James Bopp, argues it shouldn't have to reveal a thing. Bopp has sued the Federal Election Commission, arguing that what the group spends on ads is none of the government's, or the public's, business.

    "We believe that the U.S. Constitution protects them from having to file that report," says Bopp. "The problem is having to file a report at all. To be regulated at all. To be accountable to the government at all."

    Bopp is building on his success in a Supreme Court case last year that struck down a critical campaign finance regulation.

    As the law stands now, there are two basic kinds of election-related ads that require disclosure to the government and the public: Those that explicitly advocate for the support or defeat of a candidate (independent expenditures) and those that don't go that far but identify a candidate close to the election (electioneering communications). The Supreme Court, ruling last year on a Bopp lawsuit known as Wisconsin Right To Life, overturned some restrictions on the second kind of ads, so they can now be financed with corporate or union money.

    Bopp argues that if an ad doesn't fall into the first category, it's not truly related to the election. Therefore, it doesn't fall under the purview of the FEC.

    Tara Malloy, of the Campaign Legal Center, begs to differ. Her organization is filing amicus briefs in support of the FEC. Malloy says that even if the Supreme Court ruled against funding restrictions for electioneering communications, those ads are still about the election. Besides, she says, the court has upheld disclosure rules that have nothing to do with elections -- like lobbying disclosure regulations.

    "This is just sort of wishful thinking on the part of Bopp," she says.

    It's also worth noting that the Supreme Court in 2003 let stand the restrictions on electioneering ads. That was when it ruled on the McCain-Feingold law -- but it also predates the court's latest ideological shift and Bopp's Wisconsin case.

    Rules saying who can or can't pay for an ad are harsh, and need to be weighed with extreme care, Malloy acknowledges. But rules for public disclosure are the "least restrictive type of campaign finance regulation," so they should face a lighter level of scrutiny, she argues. The Supreme Court, she says, has determined that disclosure in general is important for three reasons: to prevent corruption, to inform the electorate "and thereby ensure the integrity of the government," and to tell us what's happening so we can gauge if further regulation is needed.

    "Most people, when they see an ad critical of a candidate shortly before an election, they are going to assume it has something to do with the election," Mallow says. "It would be very helpful for the citizen to know who's funding it, what their interests might be."

    Bopp, on the other hand, makes an analogy to prove his point. What if, he says, journalists had to tell the government every time they wrote a story mentioning a federal candidate? What if they had to report which candidates they named, who published the story and who paid for it?

    "Bottom line -- that's the reason they wrote the First Amendment, to protect both citizens and the press from this sort of government regulation."

    Bopp has appealed the Committee for Truth in Politics case to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. And he's got others pending. "The mushrooms are cropping up everywhere," as Malloy says.

    Keep an eye on that Supreme Court docket.

    This originally appeared on The Secret Money Project Blog, a joint project of CIR and National Public Radio tracking the hidden cash in the 2008 election.

    Will Evans | Update: Money and Politics | November 4, 2008

    And they keep coming ...

    Independent groups are vying to get in the last word before the election's over, so we'll try too. Here's a litte potpourri of last-minute efforts...

    And it doesn't get more last-minute than this: Vets for Freedom just busted out with a TV ad today, airing in Pennsylvania and Ohio, channeling some veterans' anger at Obama. The ad (below) starts out talking about Dwight Eisenhower and some letters he wrote and how Obama only wrote one letter, except that's a metaphor...but the real message is that Obama only saw failure in the courageous efforts of Iraq War veterans. It ends with a spoof of one of Obama's slogans, saying, "Can we win our war? Yes we can."


    Meanwhle, RightChange.com picked up a star of Republican Big Money: Bob Perry, the mega-donor who gave millions to Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in 2004. Perry gave $100,000 to RightChange's campaign against Obama and in defense of Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-NC). It's somehow reasuring to know that Perry isn't slacking off this election season.

    Progressive Future, which we already profiled, put up an anti-McCain ad on cable that's more about mood than message. It shows images of people struggling with the economic downturn set to Paul Simon singing, "I don't know a soul who's not been battered..." When Simon gets to the lyrics, "I wonder what's gone wrong," the ad ends up on a Bush-McCain hug.


    Missouri Right to Life, the state affiliate of National Right to Life Committee, launched an emotionally charged anti-abortion ad against Obama. The ad features Jill Stanek, an Illinois nurse who became an anti-abortion activist when she discovered babies that survived botched abortion being left to die. Stanek leads her own group, Born Alive Truth, which also produced anti-Obama ads.

    In this ad, Stanek says Obama was "unmoved" by her story and "thought that infanticide was acceptable." Because he voted against "born alive infant" legislation in the state senate, Stanek says, "His opposition was responsible for living babies being left out to die." A similar claim by Stanek's own ad was criticized by Factcheck.org.

    Good thing ads are repeating the same claims these days, because otherwise there wouldn't be time to fact-check them before polls close.

    Born Alive Truth, for its part, just received $75,000 from Norm Miller, a born-again Christian businessman who chairs a Dallas company with this mission: "To glorify God as we supply our customers worldwide with top quality, value-priced batteries, related electrical power-source products, and distribution services."

    Meanwhile, Focus on the Family Action continues to pump money into airing Born Alive Truth's ad, running it on the radio in Indiana and on TV in Colorado and Florida.

    And now for everyone's favorite "black-belt patriot," as he calls himself: Chuck Norris.

    In a National Rifle Association ad running in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and on cable, Norris says, "If some thug breaks into my home, I could use by roundhouse kick. But I prefer he look down the barrell of my gun." Norris, who supported Mike Huckabee in the Republican primaries (check out this ad) tells us to protect our rights, and beware of anti-gun politicians who pretend to support those rights.

    Norris apparently thinks he's a candidate -- he delivers the "I approve this message" line, while standing in front of a house that has a sign reading, "We don't dial 911" over a picture of a gun. Norris then delivers one of his famous punches at the camera, as the voiceover says, "Just let 'em try and outlaw those guns."


    This originally appeared on The Secret Money Project Blog, a joint project of CIR and National Public Radio tracking the hidden cash in the 2008 election.

    Will Evans | Update: Money and Politics | November 4, 2008

    The union of politics and telemarketing—what's not to like?

    Robocalls—those recorded, automatically dailed phone messages—have been lighting up phones everywhere the past few days. Nobody seems to like getting them. Some are inocuous—the standard fare of campaigns and candidates. But then there are underhanded, unaccountable calls meant to confuse voters.

    For example, calls have been going out into Virginia and Pennsylvania telling people to vote tomorrow, on Nov. 5, according to Jonah Goldman, director of Election Protection at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights. Goldman says he doesn't know who's responsible, but similar misleading messages are being distributed via email, Facebook and flyers, often targeting young and minority voters.

    A third kind of robocall comes from independent groups trying to influence your vote. The Republican Jewish Coalition, for example, is sending anti-Obama robocalls to Jewish voters. The call quotes Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) saying that Obama lacked the "political courage" to leave Rev. Jeremiah Wright's church. The RJC labels the United Church of Christ congregation "anti-Semitic" and "anti-American." The call hammers home the point with this: "If Obama doesn't have the courage to do the right thing here at home, can he stand up to dictators and tyrants who seek to do us harm? We should all be concerned about Barack Obama."

    The National Political Do Not Call Registry tracks all sorts of robocalls—and lets you report them.

    Christina Perkins, of eastern Virginia, told us she got her first robocall last week, and was a bit taken aback. The call, she says, started out asking if she is a registered voter, without identifying who wanted to know. The second question, "Are you pro-life?" struck Perkins as "sort of out of left field."

    She answered, "No," to which the robocall replied by saying that Obama would "raise your taxes by almost $3,000." Does that change your mind about Obama, the call asked? Perkins said, "No," and the message concluded by saying the group that sponsored it was in support of John McCain.

    Perkins couldn't remember the exact name of the group, but we traced it back to Christian conservative leader, one-time presidential hopeful and former Reagan advisor Gary Bauer.

    Bauer, who heads Americans United to Preserve Marriage and the group American Values, hired ccAdvertising to do the calls in Virginia, said his spokeswoman, Kristi Hamrick. Hamrick said Bauer also ran some get-out-the-vote radio ads in battleground states.

    Hamrick said she wasn't sure which Bauer organization paid for the robocalls But it appears to be Americans United to Preserve Marriage.

    In 2004, Americans United to Preserve Marriage ran ads attacking Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry and a Democratic Senate candidate on gay marraige. The biggest donors for that effort were Tom Ward and Aubrey McClendon, founders of the Oklahoma City-based Chesapeake Energy Corporation. They're also in the group of investors that bought the Seattle SuperSonics basketball team and turned them into the Oklahoma City Thunder.

    Ward, a billionaire who now heads another oil and gas company, gave Bauer's group an additional $50,000 at the end of last year.

    The group also got $50,000 from developer Jeffrey Armour last year and another $50,000 from attorney Jeffrey Czech this August. Both Southern Californians, they each gave $1,000 to Bauer's 2000 presidential campaign. Armour also gave $75,000 to the anti-gay marraige intiative on the California ballot.

    ccAdvertising, the firm hired by Bauer, has the capacity to make 3.5 million phone calls every day, and is operating in nearly every state on behalf of its clients, says chief operating officer Jason Flanary. Clients include Common Sense Issues and the Alaska Republican Party as well as McDonald's and Starbucks.

    Flanary and ccAdvertising's president, Gabriel Joseph, spun off a separate political action committee in September, called Americans in Contact, which does pro-McCain robocalls.

    The calls ask voters their preference for president. If the voter says Obama, the robocall plays two "education components," which say that Obama will raise taxes and received campaign contributions from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, according to Flanary. If the voter answers McCain, the call asks for donations to the PAC. The goal, Flanary says, is to "identify conservatives around the country and to engage them in the political process."

    As for the Gary Bauer call, Christina Perkins says, "I was irritated, just because I would have liked to know up front who was calling. After the first question, it became immediately apparent there was an agenda that was being pushed, which is irritating. I have my number on the no-call list for a reason."

    Too bad. She's now had several robocalls since that first one.

    This originally appeared on The Secret Money Project Blog, a joint project of CIR and National Public Radio tracking the hidden cash in the 2008 election.

    Will Evans | Update: Money and Politics | November 4, 2008

    Advancing Wisconsin with national money

    With all the new groups that we've seen shoveling money into high-profile TV and radio ads, it's easy to overlook the outfits working to influence the election while staying below the radar.

    Advancing Wisconsin is one of those low-visibility operations, and it's getting bankrolled by national pro-Democrat groups. A 501(c)(4) formed in May, the group does phone calls, mailers and door-to-door canvassing to help elect Obama. It spent $435,000 in the last week and $1.9 million this election season, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

    Mike Tate, the executive director, knows that many groups like his fade away after the eleciton. But his fellow organizers are determined to form a "permanent grassroots field-organizing infrastructure in Wisconsin," he says. In the future, the group plans to advocate around the state budget and state supreme court races.

    This idea of an eternal, localized political structure is a hot one among Democrats and liberals. Similar organizations exist in several other states, and big donors are looking kindly on them.

    How kindly? Advancing Wisconsin got $230,000 earlier this year from Fund for America, a group funded most notably by George Soros and organized labor. Fund for America was supposed to be a centralized funder for liberal groups, but disbanded in June.

    Another $650,000 arrived in Advancing Wisconsin's coffers this fall from America Votes 2006. The umbrella group America Votes was organized in '04, to coordinate voter mobilization against President Bush, and continues to operate.

    America Votes 2006 (stay with us here; this is how a lot of American politics is financed) recently received $500,000 from both Rockefeller heir Alida Messinger and Chicago publisher Fred Eychaner, and a combined $250,000 from brother-and-sister billionaires Jon and Pat Stryker, heirs to the Stryker medical techonology company.

    America Votes 2006 also picked up $200,000 each from Getty Oil heir Anne G. Earhart, Steelcase office furniture heir John R. Hunting and Peter B. Lewis, chair of Progressive Insurance. Lewis historically has been one of the financial stalwarts of the Left.

    But back to Advancing Wisconsin.

    Mike Tate, the director, was state director for Howard Dean's fervent-but-short try for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004. Dean now heads the Democratic National Committee. Tate was also Wisconsin's deputy director for America Coming Together, a pro-Democratic get-out-the-vote operation in 2004.

    Advancing Wisconsin's program and campaign manager is Meagan Mahaffey, previously director of the Wisconsin Democratic Party (and before that with America Coming Together and Dean). The operations director is Awais Khaleel, who was a college student superdelegate at the presidential convention and a member of the Democratic National Committee. (Tate says Khaleel gave up the DNC seat before working on Advancing Wisconsin's campaign.)

    All in all, this Wisconsin group's leadership has pretty strong connections to the national Democratic Party apparatus and those who help to underwrite it. No wonder Advancing Wisconsin is well funded.

    This originally appeared on The Secret Money Project Blog, a joint project of CIR and National Public Radio tracking the hidden cash in the 2008 election.

    Will Evans | Update: Money and Politics | November 4, 2008

    Blue ads in red territory

    Eugene Hedlund acknowledges that when Hollywood and New York filmmakers prepare political ads to target Middle America, they can spark a "backlash." So the self-described former Republican voter's political action committee, TruthandHope.org, teamed up with Hollywood and New York filmmakers to let Middle America speak for itself.

    The PAC, founded to support Democrat Howard Dean in his unsucessful 2004 presidential campaign, is running a series of ads spotlighting Obama supporters in solid Republican country -- all of them ordinary folks speaking straight to the camera. Each ad runs in the area where it was shot-- a strategy that produces its own kind of backlash, with the Obama advocates taking heat from their neighbors.

    Several ads in southeast Missouri focus on Darrell Hanschen, who runs a small pharmacy in Jackson, MO. He talks about health care ("Let's get somebody in there who cares about someone who walks the street of Jackson") and taxes ("Joe the Plumber makes more money than any plumber that I know of"). Here, he talks about a friend who's weighing whether to vote for "the black guy."


    Hedlund says one of the doctors in town said he'd never give Hanschen any more business. "These guys have stepped out in red areas, but we're trying to circle the wagons to give 'em some support," said Hedlund. Whenever someone like the pharmacist has a problem, Hedlund sends out an alert to his fundraising list, and supporters send messages of solidarity or sometimes even offer financial support, Hedlund said.

    Hedlund is a California mortgage banker who says he supported John McCain in the 2000 primaries and George Bush in the general election that year. The ad buys are all pretty small, but they add up to about $110,000 in all.

    In other ads: 81-year-old World War II vet Jack Moore of Nixa, MO, shows off his gun collection and says, "No way will Obama take my guns away." Dana Snodgrass, a small business owner in Joplin, MO, says, "I don't think George Bush and Republican Party truly care about the common people." A guy who repairs rock-crushing equipment in Nevada says, "We've already had the guy we'd like to have a beer with ... What we need now is the smartest guy." And a veteran in Columbus, OH, says he voted for McCain in 2000, but "I wouldn't do that today."

    This originally appeared on The Secret Money Project Blog, a joint project of CIR and National Public Radio tracking the hidden cash in the 2008 election.

    Will Evans | Update: Money and Politics | November 3, 2008

    Big bucks let freedom ring

    We know that Let Freedom Ring is one of the most active anti-Obama organizations this election. It's spending millions of dollars on a seemingly infinite supply of new ads.

    And now we know who's bankrolling the massive effort.

    Benefactor number one is John Templeton Jr., who is also chairman of Let Freedom Ring. He plunked down $2.7 million so far. He may have given more, for activities the group doesn't have to report.

    Templeton, whose father was a famous investor, was a co-chair of the faith and values steering committee of unsuccessful Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. A born-again Christian, he's also one of the biggest donors to a ballot initiative in California this year that would ban same-sex marriage; he and his wife gave $1.2 million.

    Some of Templeton's other gifts this year: $776,000 to the College Republican National Committee, $550,000 to the Republican State Leadership Committee and $200,000 to the Club for Growth.

    Let Freedom Ring also received $500,000 in September from Virginia James aka Virginia Manheimer, a school voucher activist and donor. James is also a co-founder of the Club for Growth, which she gave $700,000 this year.

    "Smaller" donors to Let Freedom Ring include Foster Friess and Nathan Bachman, who each gave $100,000. Friess is a sucessful Wyoming investor who formerly served as president of the Council for National Policy, an umbrella group for the religious right. Friess explains his opposition to Obama via YouTube. Bachman is an Ohio investor who gave $10,000 to Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in 2004.

    And here, below, is a sample of what that money buys: an emotional "Best Of" compendium of conservative complaints against Obama: Rev. Wright; Bill Ayres; Tony Rezko; "clinging" to guns and religion; contributions from Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae; ACORN; and taxes and spending. Let Freedom Ring put up the ad on TV this weekend.


    This originally appeared on The Secret Money Project Blog, a joint project of CIR and National Public Radio tracking the hidden cash in the 2008 election.

    Will Evans | Update: Money and Politics | November 3, 2008

    "The culture of death" and other last-minute volleys

    With the campaign din becoming ever more shrill in these last hours, opponents of Barack Obama are hoping an anti-abortion message can cut through to sympathetic voters.

    The National Pro-Life Alliance put up this ad in New Mexico, targeting both Obama and the Democratic candidate for Senate, Rep. Tom Udall. The ad recounts an incident in which two teenagers dumped their newborn baby in a Dumpster. It occurred 12 years ago in Delaware. The urgently delivered voiceover likens it to partial-birth abortion, and notes that Udall and Obama "voted to continue this grisly procedure." The group used identical language in Senate ads as far back as 2000.

    The Virginia-based alliance started in 1993 partially in response to the election of Bill Clinton, and now has 600,000 members, said its president Martin Fox, a Catholic priest in Ohio. The group is currently pushing legislation that would overturn Roe v. Wade.

    Common Sense Issues, which pushed for Mike Huckabee during the Republican primaries and then backed out of the presidential race, recently jumped back in with an ad attacking Obama on abortion.

    Running in the newly competitive states of North Dakota and Montana, the ad shows footage of Obama saying that the question of when a fetus gets human rights is "above my pay grade." That line has become one of Obama's biggest faux pas, seized upon by pro-life activists. The ad includes an interview with Bernard Nathanson, a former abortion doctor and founding member of what is now NARAL Pro-Choice America, who became an outspoken anti-abortion activist in the 1970s. He calls legalized abortion "the greatest mistake this nation has ever conceived."


    Family Research Council Action's PAC launched an ad in Virginia, with a more bipartisan approach. It quotes the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a respected Democrat, as saying partial-birth abortion is "too close to infanticide." The ad contrasts that with Obama, who it says voted against a ban on the practice. "The culture of death has a good friend in Barack Obama," it says.

    FRC PAC also has radio ads supporting Republican senators in Mississippi, Kentucky and Georgia (listen here). And today, on the eve of election day, FRC Action placed this anti-Obama ad in eight Ohio newspapers.


    Pro-choice forces are active as well. Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America each spent more than $200,000 in the last week, mostly on mailers, phone calls and canvassing for Obama and other Democrats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

    Then again, National Right To Life spent more than half a million in the last week to help McCain and other Republicans.

    This originally appeared on The Secret Money Project Blog, a joint project of CIR and National Public Radio tracking the hidden cash in the 2008 election.

    Will Evans | Update: Money and Politics | November 3, 2008

    Catholics can't vote for Obama?

    Retired Texas Bishop Rene Gracida says that Catholics cannot, in good conscience, vote for Obama. Now, in a last-ditch attempt to derail Latino support for Obama, an anti-abortion crusader and anti-illegal immigration activist have teamed up to blast out Gracida's message by email to nearly three million Latino voters and reaching even more people by radio.

    Randall Terry, the aggressive anti-abortion organizer who founded Operation Rescue, says it was his idea. He enlisted Gracida, who made national headlines in 1990 by excommunicating three Catholics for assisting with abortions. In 2004, Gracida gave a special benediction for the Republican National Convention.

    In the English-language version of his anti-Obama message, Gracida says, "A Catholic cannot be said to have voted in this election with a good conscience if they have voted for a pro-abortion candidate. Barack Hussein Obama is a pro-abortion candidate." You can hear the Spanish version here.

    Terry called the email blast "a blockbuster because Obama is desperate to take the Hispanic vote." He told us the emails went to "2.9 million Hispanic voters" as well as "100,000 whites." He corrected that to "100,000 Americans," then quickly said that didn't sound quite right either. He said he hasn't had much sleep, due to this last-minute effort.

    RightMarch.com provided financial and logistical support for the campaign, buying a bit of radio time in Ohio, and procuring the massive email list to reach Latinos.

    RightMarch's president, William Greene, made illegal immigration his top issue last year, when he lost a special election for Congress in Georgia. A fundraising letter of support for Greene from the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps PAC (which we profiled here) described Greene thusly:

  • Bill has been a leader in the fight against illegal immigration as a grassroots activist, delivering millions of messages to Capitol Hill from constituents, demanding NO AMNESTY for illegals;
  • He has personally mustered with us on the U.S.-Mexican border as a volunteer with the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, standing watch to report the illegals streaming unhindered across our officially undefended Arizona border;
  • Bill has helped us to raise tens of thousands of dollars for MCDC operations and projects, such as the Border Fence Project...
  • He has pushed hard for congressional bills to de-fund pro-illegal immigration groups like the ACLU and La Raza, to take away their ill-gotten gains stolen from the pockets of unwilling and unsuspecting taxpayers.

    Terry said radio hosts are picking up the Bishop Gracida ad and broadcasting it for free. Some individuals are paying for airtime themselves, he said, and one businessman in Ohio paid for a TV version of the ad.

    "The glory of this is that it's free," Terry said. "It's viral!"

    This originally appeared on The Secret Money Project Blog, a joint project of CIR and National Public Radio tracking the hidden cash in the 2008 election.