Outside groups, mostly GOP biased, trying to buy elections


The images are searing, violent. Smoke and flames pouring from the World Trade Center towers. Bullets ripping through military protective vests.

The scenes are from this year’s campaign ad wars, waged outside the control of candidates or political parties.

Heading into the final weeks before the Nov. 7 elections, independent advocacy groups, many financed by a few wealthy donors, are spending millions on ads in some of the most contested states and congressional districts.

Between Jan. 1 and Sept. 26, Republican-leaning groups spent $13.8 million on advertising while advertising on behalf of Democrats totaled $6.3 million, according to the Campaign Media Analysis Group. Throw in the advertising the political parties are paying for, and the Republicans have spent $5 on ads for every $3 spent by Democrats.

That is a significant reversal from 2004, when Democratic groups outnumbered and outspent Republican organizations. Now, some Democratic officials are wondering when their deep-pocketed liberal allies will step in to help.

"If it’s there, I haven’t seen it," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel, the Illinois Democrat who heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "I can’t tell you what happened from ’04 to ’06 and why some decided either not to participate in this election or not be at the same level."

As election day nears, television viewers have been introduced to Republican-oriented groups with names such a Progress for America, Softer Voices and the Economic Freedom Fund. Their benefactors include Univision founder Andrew Perenchio; conservative philanthropist John M. Templeton Jr. of Bryn Mawr, Pa.; Foster Friess, former manager of the Brandywine mutual funds; and Bob J. Perry, the Texas builder who helped finance the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth that attacked Sen. John Kerry’s Vietnam record during the 2004 presidential race.

Progress for America is credited with helping President Bush’s re-election with a powerful ad evoking the Sept. 11 attacks. The GOP-leaning group now is running ads in Missouri and Ohio that support the war in Iraq.

The Economic Freedom Fund, bankrolled by Perry, is running ads in congressional districts in Iowa, Indiana, Georgia and West Virginia.

Softer Voices, backed by Friess and Templeton, has spent $850,000 in an ad campaign in Pennsylvania on behalf of Republican Sen. Rick Santorum, who is running behind Democrat Bob Casey.

So far, most of the Democratic advertising help has come from MoveOn.org, a liberal group has been raising smaller contributions as a federally regulated political action committee.

MoveOn spent most of its advertising money in March, targeting congressional districts that were not yet considered vulnerable for Republicans but have since become competitive. Right now, MoveOn is only advertising in two New York congressional districts and one in New Hampshire.

Democrats have gotten help from VoteVets, a PAC formed by military veterans who are critical of the Iraq war. The group is focusing on Santorum and Republican Sens. George Allen of Virginia and Conrad Burns of Montana.

The VoteVets ads accuse the senators of not supporting legislation to get better equipment for U.S. troops. The ads have been small buys, but have benefited from media coverage because they dramatically portray a sharpshooter firing through a protective vest.

A group of Democratic strategists has tried to raise about $20 million for an October advertising blitz. The effort, called the September Fund, is being led by Harold Ickes, a former aide to President Clinton and an adviser to Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y.

In a letter circulated to potential donors this month, the organizers said: "While we have achieved unprecedented unity, it is only meaningful if we can mobilize the power of progressive donors to ensure sufficient financial resources are available."

Among those solicited was billionaire financier George Soros, a donor to liberal causes who contributed more than $20 million to defeat Bush in 2004. Soros has put more than $2 million into this election, much of it toward get out the vote efforts. In an interview this month on CNN, Soros said he did not plan to spend as much as 2004.

"That was an exceptional situation," he said.

Democratic Party officials said outside groups such as the September Fund are organizing too late. "If it was September ’05, I’d feel better," Emanuel said.

This year, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has run the biggest ad campaign: $7.3 million on behalf of Republican candidates and $1.2 million on behalf of business friendly Democrats in primary contests. But the chamber had to stop those ads on Sept. 7, to abide by a legal prohibition on the use of union or corporate funds for electioneering ads 60 days before the vote.

Just in September, Progress for America has aired three rounds of ads linking the war in Iraq to the broader effort to combat terrorism. The ads area appearing on national cable networks and were broadcast statewide in Missouri and Ohio.

The first ad showed images of jet planes slicing into the World Trade Center Towers. The narrator warned, "These People Want to Kill Us." A new ad features Iraq war veterans describing the war’s successes. None of the ads features politicians nor voices support for or against any elected official.

"A lot of people turn off political ads when they see a candidate," said Stuart Roy, a GOP consultant working with Progress for America. "These ads have a longer lasting effect than those that mention a candidate."

Still, some ads can backfire, and operatives from both parties have mixed views on their effectiveness.

Michael Steele, the Republican candidate for Senate in Maryland, was forced to repudiate a radio ad by an independent group supporting his candidacy that claimed Martin Luther King Jr. was a Republican and that Democrats initiated the Ku Klux Klan. Steele called the ad "insulting to Marylanders."

"Independent expenditures are overrated mostly because you’re operating outside the strategic framework of the campaign," said Steve Elmendorf, a former top aide to one-time House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt and deputy campaign manager in Kerry’s presidential campaign. "Sometimes they just create clutter."

MoveOn’s executive director, Eli Pariser, said this election will be won on the ground, not the airwaves.

"For all the talk about ads," he said, "this is not a persuasion election as much as it is a turnout election."

Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press