A not-for-profit organization with strong Republican ties has re-formed in recent months with several top GOP strategists at the helm in an effort to counter the proliferation of soft-money groups on the Democratic side.
The group — Progress for America — is a 501(c)(4) membership committee that was begun in 2001 by Tony Feather, a longtime Republican consultant with strong ties to President Bush. Feather recently cut his ties to the group, however, and has been replaced atop the organization by Chris LaCivita, political director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee in the 2002 cycle and the top political strategist for NRSC Chairman George Allen (Va.).
Republican lawyer Ben Ginsberg, who specializes in campaign finance and election law, is also closely affiliated with the committee, according to well-placed sources.
Neither LaCivita nor Ginsberg returned calls for comment.
The group’s organizational structure is similar to that of the National Rifle Association. As a 501(c)(4) membership committee, it can expressly advocate the election or defeat of candidates to its membership through phone calls, direct mail and other modes of voter contact. The organization is currently undertaking a major effort to increase its membership base nationwide, according to sources familiar with its actions.
PFA can also sponsor some issue-advocacy advertising in political campaigns, though it cannot directly advocate for or against a candidate nor spend more than half of its budget on these type of ads.
In the Mississippi gubernatorial race, PFA expended roughly $500,000 on two commercials that attacked state Sen. Barbara Blackmon — the Democratic Party’s nominee for lieutenant governor — for her record on taxes and crime.
Republican Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck, a former Democrat, won a crushing 61 percent to 37 percent victory over Blackmon.
Prior to 2003, the group ran issue ads in Florida advocating for Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” education act. It also did some grassroots organizing to protest Senate Democrats’ filibuster of several Bush judicial nominees.
The group’s tax return for 2002, the most recent disclosure available, showed that it reported $413,295 in revenue.
Disclosure requirements for nonprofits and tax-exempt organizations are far less detailed than for groups registered as political organizations, meaning that nonprofits don’t have to specify exactly how they spent their money but can instead report broad categories of expenditures.
According to the group’s 2002 return, the largest program spending was $192,434 for state/regional consultants communicating with the public on trade policy, energy plans, education reform and tax cuts. It also spent $101,417 for a telephone program communicating information on trade authority policy.
The primary goal of PFA in the 2004 elections is to function as a massive get-out-the-vote tool fueled by soft-money donations, which can be accepted in unlimited sums.
Prior to this cycle, the vast majority of GOTV activity had been handled by the national parties, but passage of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act in 2002 banned national party committees from raising and spending soft money.
Into this void have stepped a number of Democratic groups hoping to capture the soft money previously allocated to the Democratic National Committee.
They are led by America Coming Together, which is chaired by EMILY’s List President Ellen Malcolm and run by former AFL-CIO Political Director Steve Rosenthal, and America Votes, which is run by Cecile Richards, a former top aide to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
Billionaire financier George Soros gave $10 million to ACT earlier in the year. The group has budgeted $75 million to voter mobilization efforts in the 2004 campaign. Soros recently gave an additional $5 million personal donation to MoveOn.org, a progressive, Internet-based activist organization.
PFA plans to counter the influence wielded by Democratic soft-money donors such as Soros by offering deep-pocketed Republicans an avenue of their own to express their political viewpoints.
It joins Americans for a Better Country and the Leadership Forum — both 527s — on the Republican side of the new soft-money wars.
The Leadership Forum was started by former Rep. Bill Paxon (N.Y.) and Susan Hirschmann, a former chief of staff to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Texas) and is aimed at raising soft money for House campaigns.
ABC has been linked to George Terwilliger, one of the attorneys for Bush during the 2000 Florida recount, as well as GOP consultants Craig Shirley and Frank Donatelli.
House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio) held a hearing last Thursday aimed at exploring whether these groups were purposely attempting to evade BCRA.
Top Democratic officials at a variety of soft-money organizations refused to testify, saying Ney’s request amounted to little more than a partisan witch hunt.
The committee authorized Ney to subpoena the Democrats, but at press time he had not made a decision on whether to do so.
Damon Chappie contributed to this report.
SOFT MONEY OUTLETS The following organizations formed since BCRA passage:
The Leadership Forum (R)
Key players: former Rep. Bill Paxon (N.Y.), lobbyist Susan Hirschmann
Americans for A Better Country (R)
Key players: attorney George Terwilliger, political consultants Craig Shirley and Frank Donatelli
America Coming Together (D)
Key players: EMILY’s List President Ellen Malcolm, former AFL-CIO Political Director Steve Rosenthal
America Votes (D)
Key player: former Pelosi aide Cecile Richards
Partnership for Working Families (D)
Key players: Rosenthal, Service Employees International Union President Andrew Stern
Voices for Working Families (D)
Key player: American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees President Gerald McEntee
Grassroots Democrats (D)
Key players: Communication Workers of America President Morty Bahr, Association of Trial Lawyers of America Senior Director for Public Affairs Linda Lipsen
Clergy Leadership Network (D)
Key player: the Rev. Albert Pennybacker
Environment 2004 (D)
Key players: former Interior Sec. Bruce Babbitt, former Environmental Protection Administration chief Carol Browner
501(c)(3)s and 501(c)(4)s —
Center for American Progress (D)
Key players: former Clinton White House Chief of Staff John Podesta, former Gephardt aide Laura Nichols
Progress for America (R)
Key players: former National Republican Senatorial Committee Political Director Chris LaCivita, GOP election lawyer Ben Ginsberg
Hybrid Organizations (527 and hard- dollar political action committees) —
Democratic Senate Majority Fund
Key players: Missouri campaign operative Marc Farinella, former Gore aide Monica Dixon
New House PAC
Key players: Former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Executive Director Howard Wolfson, former DCCC Finance Director Jonathan Mantz