Nonprofits Become A Force in Primaries

The nonprofit Friends of the Earth Action runs radio ads praising former senator John Edwards (D) for his stand on global warming.
The nonprofit Friends of the Earth Action runs radio ads praising former senator John Edwards (D) for his stand on global warming. (By Charlie Neibergall -- Associated Press)
By John Solomon and Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Nonprofit groups created to educate the public and lobby on issues have started inserting themselves into the presidential primaries, adding an unexpected wild card to wide-open elections in both parties.

The groups provide a new avenue for routing millions of dollars into an election cycle already awash with spending by traditional political organizations. The nonprofits are competing with the campaigns for voter attention, especially in early-voting states such as Iowa and New Hampshire, and their advertising, phone calls and mailings could help diffuse the candidates' own messages.

The nonprofits enjoy advantages over traditional political groups because there is no limit to who can give or the size of the donations, and no requirement to publicly disclose the contributors.

After months of quiet planning, the groups' activities are starting to surface in the primary states:

Friends of the Earth Action, a nonprofit that supports former senator John Edwards (D-N.C.), runs radio ads praising his environmental record and asking why Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) had not taken a stand on a global warming bill.

Americans for Fair Taxation, which wants to replace all federal taxes with a national sales tax, has spent $2.5 million so far. The group bought 400 tickets to Iowa's Republican straw poll and bused in supporters who helped its favorite candidate, Mike Huckabee. The former Arkansas governor finished a surprising second.

And NumbersUSA is mobilizing its 1.5 million members to make calls and send e-mails to pressure the candidates to end illegal immigration. The group is keeping a scorecard on the presidential candidates, finding former senator Fred D. Thompson (Tenn.) rapidly improving and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) as "dead last" among the Republicans, its leader said.

"For us, it is all about the presidential campaign, the rest of December and January," said Roy Beck, executive director of the decade-old NumbersUSA, whose primary target on immigration issues has been Congress. "We don't want anyone casting a ballot who really cares about immigration to do it without knowing where the candidates stand."

The nonprofit groups, known by the designation 501(c)(4) because of the tax code section that applies to them, have been around for decades. They have long been a force influencing Congress and state legislatures. Conservatives have extensively used them over the past decade to help gain support during debates over legislation.

This year, these nonprofits have already started to encroach on turf that has been dominated by political parties, political action committees and, in the past few elections, by independent political groups created under section 527 of the IRS code. The latter groups spent $685 million in 2004 trying to influence voters with everything from antiwar messages against President Bush to ads sponsored by a group of Swift Boat veterans that questioned the heroism of Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry.

The 501(c)(4) groups pay no taxes on the donations they collect, but -- unlike charities -- their donors do not get a tax deduction. They are allowed to make political endorsements and engage in other political activities as long as political action is not their primary purpose.

"You can do many of the same things you can with a 527 while also shielding your donors, and that is very attractive to the organizers and their backers," explained Michael E. Toner, a Federal Election Commission chairman who retired earlier this year and now serves as Thompson's presidential campaign counsel.

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