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New 527 Jolts Stem-Cell Debate

Group Plans to Wield Carrots, Sticks on Divisive Issue

There’s a new kid on the block in the battle over embryonic stem-cell research, and it’s threatening to make the debate less about the science of the issue and more about the political ramifications for lawmakers who oppose broad federal funding of the controversial studies.

StemPAC, a group formed in May of this year but officially launched in July, is headed by John Hlinko, a Democratic political activist and founder of the “Draft Wesley Clark” presidential effort, along with a team of like-minded strategists, including media consultant Bud Jackson of the Jackson Group. Liberal Web logger Markos Moulitsas Zuniga of sits on its advisory board.

The group aims to be more aggressive than groups already on the landscape, officials said.

“We want to sort of be the bulldog in the yard,” said Jackson in an interview. “We want to apply political pressure. … We thought there was a vacuum out there and that there was a way to do this smarter.”

Despite its infancy, StemPAC made a media splash the week of July 25, when it announced plans to run ads criticizing Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s (R-Tenn.) apparent opposition to stem-cell research, including his reluctance to bring a broad House-passed stem-cell research bill to the Senate floor before the August recess.

The ad was to have run in New Hampshire, where Frist would have to campaign if he is going to run for president in 2008 as is rumored. It would have criticized Frist for supporting the “outsourcing” of biomedical research jobs.

However, StemPAC pre-empted the first airing of the commercials when Frist announced on July 29 that he supported passage of the House bill, following weeks of reports that he was working with nervous conservatives to come up with an alternative measure that could siphon votes away from the House measure during any Senate consideration.

Hlinko and Jackson acknowledged that the ad buy in New Hampshire wasn’t going to involve much money, but added that the planned rolling media buy would have aired the ad 250 times in four days on ABC news programs, starting the Friday night of Frist’s announcement. Indeed, the mere announcement that StemPAC would begin airing ads resulted in $200,000 in donation pledges to the group.

Once Frist shifted his position, the group changed tactics to running ads on liberal Web logs that thanked Frist for his “courage” in breaking with President Bush’s opposition to more embryonic stem-cell research. In fact, the StemPAC Web site generated 1,500 thank-you e-mails to Frist in the first 24 hours after his July 29 announcement, Hlinko said.

Frist’s apparent change of heart is considered significant because it may prompt other wavering Republicans to buck Bush. The president does not support any changes to his policy of allowing federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research only on a handful of lines created before Aug. 9, 2001. Frist and other critics noted those lines are contaminated and cannot be used for successful human disease therapies.

Hlinko said the group will push to create a national grass-roots movement dedicated to pressuring wavering lawmakers to support stem-cell research on embryos from fertility clinics that would be destroyed or discarded anyway. Most anti-abortion conservatives oppose such research because they consider it the destruction of a nascent human life.

Hlinko said StemPAC will use both carrot and stick, spending most of its energy working to defeat lawmakers in the 2006 midterm elections rather than just supporting lawmakers who have voted for or back stem-cell research.

“Whoever the biggest roadblocks are, we will target them,” said Hlinko, adding that Democrats and Republicans alike could be targets.

StemPAC’s tactics differ significantly from other pro-research groups, such as the Republican Main Street Partnership and the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, to name but a few.

CAMR, for example, is comprised of doctors, researchers and patients’ rights groups that have more at stake before Congress than just research on embryonic stem cells, said spokesman Sean Tipton.

CAMR’s member organizations “are inherently conservative in how they operate. It’s important for these organizations to have good relationships throughout the Congress,” explained Tipton.

Meanwhile, RMSP has run ads in a number of states hoping to influence wavering House and Senate lawmakers, but their ads have avoided naming the targeted politician for fear of upsetting GOP leaders in Washington. Instead, the ads simply explain what they see as the promise of stem-cell research to cure myriad of diseases and ask citizens to call Congress.

It was RMSP members, such as Reps. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Mike Castle (R-Del.), who secured a deal with House GOP leaders to have the initial vote on the House stem-cell measure despite the party leadership’s distaste for it.

Hlinko said that many people are advocating for stem-cell research, but few are taking a hard political line or trying to build a grassroots effort that can compete with the already massive grass-roots anti-abortion effort.

“One thing that is not happening is lots and lots of people sending e-mails to Members of Congress and making phone calls,” he said.

Plus, tying the controversial outsourcing issue, which has become a concern for New Hampshire voters, to the stem-cell debate was a way of bringing these decisions home to both lawmakers and constituents, Jackson said.

Still, the political bent of StemPAC worry some stem-cell research advocates. They fear that aggressive moves by the group could harm the delicate bipartisan balance required to pass the House bill in Congress.

“We don’t think it’s helpful if the debate becomes too overtly partisan,” said one such advocate, who requested anonymity. The advocate added that the fact that StemPAC’s entire organization is made up of Democratic partisans could pose trouble for the stem-cell movement.

Hlinko said he understands why some may be concerned, but said his interest in the issue if more personal than partisan, given that his nephew was recently diagnosed with Tay-Sachs disease, an incurably fatal genetic disorder, but for which many researchers believe stem-cell research could provide a therapy.

“The proper thing to do is to be aggressively bipartisan and also be aggressive in getting the grassroots out,” said Hlinko, who added that it was a conscious decision to feature Republican stem-cell research supporters, such as Frist, Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah), and former first lady Nancy Reagan, on their Web site.

Besides, the first presidential campaign he worked on was for Ronald Reagan, he notes.

“I’m not as liberal as people think,” he said.

Still, StemPAC’s targets will more often than not be Republicans, given that the GOP is home to a sizable majority of anti-abortion conservatives.

Indeed, Jackson noted that Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), who is up for re-election this year, would “definitely be a target” for StemPAC.

“He’s in a tough election where we can play and probably make a difference,” Jackson said.

Hlinko said that while StemPAC is new, it has already “made a large Internet footprint very quickly.” Hlinko boasts that the StemPAC Web site is the most visited pro-stem-cell research site on the Web, measured by Web rankings.

Though the group is called StemPAC, Hlinko and Jackson said they are currently organized as a 527 political group, named for the section of the Internal Revenue Service code under which they organize, rather than as a traditional political action committee.

Still, Jackson said they would likely create an actual PAC in the future in order to run ads close to election dates. Current campaign finance laws prohibit 527s and other “soft-money” groups from running ads within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election. PACs that use traceable hard money can run ads up until Election Day.