Three top officials to Sen. John Edwards’ (D-N.C.) unsuccessful presidential bid have formed a soft-money group that is financing television ads and direct-mail efforts in five key Senate races.
Citizens for a Strong Senate filed with the Internal Revenue Service as a 527 group on Aug. 9, listing Jonathan Prince, Edwards’ former deputy campaign manager, as its chairman and Lora Haggard, the Edwards campaign’s former comptroller, as its secretary-treasurer.
Sources familiar with the group said Nick Baldick — Edwards’ former campaign manager and now a senior adviser to the presidential bid of Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (D) — is also involved with the group and has helped on the fundraising front.
Core supporters of the new group are Herb and Marion Sandler, the co-CEOs of the Golden West Financial Corp., which is based in Oakland, Calif.
Sources said the Sandlers expressed an interest in helping Democrats win back the Senate and were put in touch with Prince. They then donated roughly $3 million to CSS between Sept. 1 and 7.
The couple are major donors to several other 527 groups. They gave the Joint Victory Fund — a committee that benefits both America Coming Together and the Media Fund, the Democrats’ two largest soft-money groups — $954,000. They also gave the MoveOn.org Voter Fund $2.5 million earlier this year.
The Sandlers did not return several calls for comment.
The other contributor to CSS in the period was Lisa Baron, the wife of Fred Baron — a prominent trial lawyer who was one of Edwards’ key fundraising links to that community during his presidential campaign.
CSS has used its donations to take to the airwaves in Alaska, Colorado, Oklahoma and South Carolina, reserving time totalling $1.2 million. Sources familiar with the buys note the group has already added to them and is likely to do so again.
They have also paid for direct-mail pieces in Colorado and North Carolina that attack the Republican Senate nominees.
“We are prepared to continue to be aggressive in advocating for the issues we care about in all the states we are currently involved in, and perhaps more,” said Prince.
The Kentucky race between Sen. Jim Bunning (R) and state Sen. Dan Mongiardo (D) is emerging as the next likely CSS target, party sources said.
Although Democrats have successfully used 527s to fund efforts to defeat President Bush, CSS is the first organization to demonstrate a willingness to raise and spend millions of soft dollars on Senate races.
Under the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, national party committees are banned from accepting soft-money contributions, which could be collected in individual amounts.
As a result, 527s — referred to by the tax-code section that governs their activities — have filled the void in collecting large, unregulated donations.
Republicans have long feared that 527 groups aligned with Democrats would turn their attention to the Senate. The GOP has painted CSS as an end run around BCRA and its regulations.
“It is interesting that a lot of these Senate candidates that are benefiting from this soft money are the same candidates running from the national party,” said Allen. “They are running away from John Kerry and national Democrats but they will take this liberal infusion of cash.”
Allen added that the three polling firms that received money from CSS from July 1 to Sept. 30 — Global Strategy Group, Hamilton Beattie & Staff and Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research — also handle research for Democratic Senate candidates in South Carolina, Florida, South Dakota and Louisiana.
But DSCC Communications Director Brad Woodhouse denied any link between his committee and CSS.
“I never heard of them before I saw it for the first time in the press,” said Woodhouse. The DSCC “obviously has no affiliation with them.”
While CSS’ October quarterly IRS filing lists only $325,000 spent on polling, research and media consulting, the group has already committed more than $1 million to ads in four Senate races.
CSS’ biggest outlay is in Colorado, where ads attacking brewing magnate Pete Coors (R) began Wednesday and are slated to continue through the election at a cost of $599,000. Coors is engaged in a nip-and-tuck contest with state Attorney General Ken Salazar (D).
The CSS ad, which is running in the Colorado Springs and Denver media markets, features a narrator who asks, “His beer is great, but what about his views?”
The ad goes on to allege Coors’ opposition to importing prescription drugs from Canada and his failure to support a hike in the minimum wage.
The mail piece follows the same message. “Beer should go down easy … but what about your senator’s promises?” the mailer asks.
CSS is also set to spend more than $500,000 in Oklahoma against former Rep. Tom Coburn (R).
The Oklahoma ad, which went on television Monday, features a handful of children noting that while Coburn, who is an obstetrician, has delivered “thousands of babies … he’s let down millions of kids” with his votes during his six years in Congress.
The ads are running statewide from Oct. 18 to 22 and then again from Oct. 25 through Nov. 2.
In South Carolina, two CSS ads were on the air last week, both of which attacked Rep. Jim DeMint (R) for his record of missed votes.
In one, a couple holds a framed picture of the Congressman as a “breaking news” slogan runs across the bottom of the screen.
The “wife” begs viewers that “if anyone has seen our Congressman, Jim DeMint, please tell him we just want to know where he is.”
The buy spanned Oct. 13-17, costing $161,000.
The Alaska ad seeks to tie Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) to her unpopular father, Gov. Frank Murkowski (R). That ad ran Oct. 13-17 with a $50,500 price tag.