DCCC Goes for Broke

New Site Hits Freedom’s Watch

Posted July 30, 2008 at 6:29pm

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is set to launch a new Web site today devoted to attacking third-party conservative group Freedom’s Watch, which is expected to pour millions of dollars into House and Senate contests this fall.

The Las Vegas-themed site is aimed at portraying the 501(c)(4) organization as another extension of the Bush administration, funded by top GOP donors — such as casino magnate Sheldon Adelson — and staffed by Republican operatives. Adelson is believed to be the primary financial backer of Freedom’s Watch, and the site is largely aimed at exposing him.

“We think it’s very important that voters in all of these Congressional districts understand who’s paying for and financing the ads they’re listening to and they understand that these are essentially surrogates of the Bush campaign,” DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) said in an interview Wednesday.

Freedom’s Watch is expected to play heavily in Congressional races this fall as a supplement to the efforts of the cash-strapped National Republican Congressional Committee and National Republican Senatorial Committee. At the end of June, the DCCC had close to $55 million in the bank, while the NRCC had about $8.5 million. The gap between the parties’ Senate committees was smaller but still substantial.

As a 501(c)(4) organization, Freedom’s Watch is able to accept soft-money donations in unlimited amounts from individuals and is not required to report donors’ identities. The group cannot advocate directly for or against a candidate, but it can get involved in races as long as its activities are issue-based.

“What you’re seeing this time around is that the NRCC has essentially contracted out its operation to Freedom’s Watch,” Van Hollen said. “They haven’t made any secret of how pleased they are that Freedom’s Watch is throwing them a life preserver.”

The DCCC initially plans to spread word of the site through the liberal blogosphere and via Democratic activists. But the hope is the site eventually will be a resource for local media once Freedom’s Watch begins running larger-scale TV and radio ad buys and funding automated telephone calls.

“When these ads start being run, this is a resource to folks who are following these races at the local level,” Van Hollen said. “We think it’s essential that voters understand what this entity is, what it’s all about, who the players are, who’s financing it.”

The site details ties between the group and prominent Bush alumni such as former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, a co-founder of the group; Bush political guru Karl Rove; and Tony Feather, who was political director for Bush’s 2000 campaign and was recently brought on board to oversee Freedom’s Watch involvement in Senate races.

“It sounds like a brilliant ploy for diverting public attention away from the incompetence of Congressional leaders and $4 gas prices,” said Freedom’s Watch spokesman Ed Patru, a former staffer at the NRCC.

Freedom’s Watch executive director Carl Forti is a former communications director and director of the independent expenditure program at the NRCC.

Patru joked that the site could also be part of the DCCC’s plan “for beating us in every Congressional district where we’re going to be on the ballot.”

Freedom’s Watch has been active in House races already, running ads in special elections in Louisiana and Mississippi earlier this year. At the time, the DCCC filed complaints against the group with both the Federal Election Commission and the Internal Revenue Service, alleging unlawful coordination with the NRCC.

Meanwhile, despite record fundraising hauls for the cycle, Van Hollen said that the DCCC’s biggest challenge remains putting together enough money to fund opportunities on an expanding playing field that already includes 62 targeted GOP seats.

“As well as we are doing financially, we have a long way to go to be able to support all of the terrific candidates that are out there that have been recruited,” he said.

He also said he continues to be concerned about complacency and warned against an “irrational exuberance” on the part of Democrats over the party’s massive cash advantage.

“People are talking about a huge pickup of seats when the resources are not there as of today to do the job,” Van Hollen said.

Money aside, Democrats look to be continuing to expand their playing field of competitive seats.

Van Hollen signaled that the rollout of another round of “Red to Blue” candidates is on the horizon. The program targets competitive GOP-held challenger and open-seat races for special help with fundraising and field operations. He said it is likely the committee will introduce two more rounds of Red to Blue candidates before the election.