Will new ‘soft money’ groups replace cash-strapped NRCC?

WASHINGTON — When Arizonans opened the pages of the Arizona Republic on Veterans Day in November, there was a good chance they saw a full page advertisement taking aim at Democratic U.S. Rep. Harry Mitchell for his vote in support of a bill that included a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. The advertisement featured a letter from injured Iraq veteran Andrew Robinson, pictured seated in a wheelchair.

"…Sadly, some in Congress seem more interested in playing politics than achieving victory," it read.

The Republic advertisement was not paid for by the Arizona Republican Party or, for that matter, any of the Republicans challenging Mitchell for his seat.

It was paid by an organization operating in Washington, D.C., called Freedom's Watch.

Today Congressional candidates will scramble to raise money before the midnight deadline at the end of this fund-raising quarter. A healthy amount raised will mean they can pick up momentum or credibility. Poor fundraising can damage a campaign and might even lead a candidate to drop out. But just as nervously as they try to fill their own bank accounts, Republican candidates will also be looking at what the national committees raise.

But this cycle many Republican candidates might be looking around to third party organizations. While these third party groups — whether they are 527 organizations or 501 c (4) — cannot coordinate with campaigns or parties, but they can raise an unlimited amount of money.

For example, consider Freedom's Watch, a 503 c (4) non-profit, with a conservative mission poised to play a major role in races across the country. Already, conservative organizations are laying the groundwork in states like Arizona, Colorado, and Nevada.

Third-party groups are not new to the electoral scene. Perhaps most famously, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth played a major role in damaging Democrat John Kerry in his 2004 campaign for the White House.

And liberal organizations, like the Campaign for America's Future, have been extraordinarily active in political activity this cycle.

"There is the potential for independent organizations to play a major role on both sides of the aisle," said Michael Toner, who was appointed by President Bush in 2002 to serve as chairman of the Federal Election Commission and now works as an attorney specializing in election law.

But with the Democratic congressional and senatorial campaign committees dwarfing their Republican counterparts in fundraising – the National Republican Congressional Committee has $5 million on hand and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has $38 million, while the National Republican Senatorial Committee has $12 million and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has $29 million – conservative third party groups will be trying to make up the difference.

"There's a good chance 527 groups will dominate Republican rescue efforts in congressional races this year," said David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report.

John Hishta, who has served as executive director of the NRCC, said:

"If I'm at the NRCC, I'm going to say 'I'm going to get all the help I can get."'

And with conservative groups like Freedom's Watch and the Coalition for a Conservative Majority gearing up, Democrats are telling candidates and donors not to become complacent. In a December memo, DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen pointed to the efforts of Freedom's Watch in a December special election for Ohio's District 5 House seat, writing that in the coming year "our main competition is likely to be Republican 527s, not the NRCC," and that "clearly, House Democrats must be prepared to defend ourselves from outside conservative groups' attacks and learn from these special elections as we prepare for 2008."

In February, the DCCC invited House challengers from across the country, including Colorado's Betsy Markey and Arizona's Ann Kirkpatrick and Bob Lord, to its Washington, D.C., offices to discuss how to fend off attacks from conservative groups.

"It's clear the NRCC is outsourcing their attacks to right-wing smear organizations. We have been anticipating this activity for months and have been preparing our candidates with the tools they need to respond effectively," said DCCC spokesman Doug Thornell.

But Republicans face a difficult landscape in 2008 – something not lost upon those pushing conservative 527 efforts forward. "Any time you go from the majority to the minority it becomes more difficult, said Freedom's Watch communications director Ed Patru. With 29 Republicans retiring from the House and 6 from the Senate, conservative third-party groups will have to pick and choose where to expend their resources. With the electoral map still developing, conservative groups will be waiting to see if they have an opportunity to go on the offense against Democratic incumbents, or if they will have to focus their efforts on maintaining the seats of retiring House members and incumbents.

"You don't want to lose seats or incumbents put in peril because no one was watching the race and have the incumbents caught off guard," said Republican pollster Neil Newhouse. If Republicans do have opportunities to go after Democrat-held seats, they will target those candidates they ascertain are most vulnerable. "The secret to success is to research ahead of time into candidates' vulnerabilities," Hishta said.

Terry Nelson, who served as National Political Director for George W. Bush's reelection campaign and who has headed up political operations for the RNC and NRCC in prior cycles, said he believed the organizations would largely focus their efforts in open seats.

Throughout the process, Republican strategists say, outside organizations like Freedom's Watch will be taking a cold, hard look at polling numbers. Newhouse says conservatives will likely take an initial look at polling in individual House and Senate in June. In September and October conservatives will revisit the polling to see how the races are shaping up and where they want to focus their resources in the final weeks.

What remains an unknown is how the top of the Democratic ticket fills out. Republican analysts say that whether Clinton or Obama wins the Democratic nomination could very well shift which down ballot races are competitive and which are not. Clinton and Obama each have their own strengths and weaknesses, Republicans say, and they each have qualities that can impact down ballot races in different ways. In the races, explains Newhouse, "the key thing to remember is that each of these organizations is going to take a look at the Democrat, the Republican, and the top of the ticket." Newhouse adds: "I think it's really difficult to determine who the swing voters are until Democrats decide who their candidate is."

What is known is that conservative organizations, so far, have their eye on Arizona, which features at least three competitive House campaigns, including Mr. Mitchell's; Colorado, where Democrat Betsy Markey is challenging Republican incumbent Marilyn Musgrave and Democrat Mark Udall is running against Republican Bob Schaffer in a widely watched race for an open U.S. Senate seat; and Nevada, which has several competitive House races.

Perhaps one of the most aggressive groups early on has been Coalition for a Conservative Majority, a group founded by former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell that says it aims to complement the media-focused approach of groups like Freedom's Watch with a more grassroots-oriented model. As of today, the organization has set up chapters nine locations around the country, including Las Vegas, Phoenix, Denver, Colorado Springs, C

Earlier this year, Mr. DeLay, who has said that he would like to set up a broader network of conservative third-party groups, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that "I think Nevada will be a political hotbed.

You're going to have some good races here." DeLay also told the paper he was interested in Republican incumbent Jon Porter's race against Democratic challenger Robert Daskas.

In conversations, Democrats said they were expecting attacks from the 527 groups and that they would take them as they came. "Jon Porter is an extremely vulnerable Republican incumbent with a record of protecting the status quo, so it is no surprise right wing organizations like Freedom's Watch and the Coalition for a Conservative Majority would try to save his political career. We have been anticipating this activity for months and are fully prepared to respond to false and negative attacks against Robert from Washington insiders," said Heather Urban, who is managing the Daskas campaign.

Emily Bittner, who serves as communications director for the Arizona Democratic Party, said: "We anticipate some activity from 527s. We will obviously defend our candidates from their misleading attacks."

In Colorado, meanwhile, state Democratic Party chairwoman Pat Waak said her "point of view is the only thing that matters to the GOP is the senate race" there between Mr. Udall and Mr. Schaffer. "There is no question we are going to see a lot of (attacks from independent organizations), which are nasty, negative, and distorting of Mark's record," said Taylor West, a spokeswoman for the Udall campaign. State Democrats noted that a group called Common Sense Issues had already started airing advertisements against Udall.

Conservative third-party groups face at least several hurdles in their efforts. Nelson, the former Bush campaign strategist, said the most effective advertisements in any campaign were the ones that come from the candidates themselves and that "any time you step away from that you diminish the effectiveness of the ads." Hishta, the former NRCC executive director, agreed.

"At the end of the day, a candidate's message is the most important thing in a dialogue," he said. Wasserman, the Cook Political Report analyst, suggested the lack of coordination between the campaigns and the independent group might have a negative impact on message disciple. "The downside… is that Republican leaders will have little to no control over what these groups say," he said.

What also poses a potential roadblock is the reported financial difficulties conservative groups face. Larry McCarthy, a veteran Republican media consultant who is reportedly working with the American Future Fund, a group airing advertisements in Minnesota supporting of incumbent Republican Sen. Norm Coleman, said in an interview that conservative groups are "far behind" their liberal counterparts. The March departure of Freedom's Watch president Brad Blakeman was widely seen as an indicator of money problems.

But a money shortfall might not prevent a group like Freedom's Watch from making a difference. "Frankly, you don't need to have a ton of cash to have an impact," Hishta said.

With a number of congressional and senate races up for grabs, Freedom's Watch, from all indications, is getting ready to play a role this cycle. In March, the organization hired Carl Forti, a former communications director at the NRCC, to head up the group's issues advocacy program.

But for all that, one major elephant lurks in the corner: the presidential race. Michael Barone, an analyst and coauthor of the Almanac of American Politics, said conservative groups might realize that, facing a brutal electoral outlook in the House and Senate, their best hope this year is maintaining control of the White House.

"Why spend a lot of time and money if you're not going to win the majority?" he said. Will new ‘soft money’ groups replace cash-strapped NRCC?