By Paul Kane and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, January 20, 2008
When a group of former White House aides formed a political advocacy group called Freedom's Watch last summer, its initial wave of ads featured battered Iraq war veterans pleading for support for President Bush's "surge" of troops.
Last month, the theme changed dramatically as the same group splashed dark, grainy images of illegal immigrants across television screens in northern Ohio, attacking a Democratic candidate's position on the divisive domestic issue.
Freedom's Watch has loudly announced that there will be no limits to what it might do. From its $15 million summer ad campaign defending the Iraq strategy to its six-figure effort in the House special election in Ohio, the group has put Democrats on notice that its agenda will go far beyond the conservative principles of its largest financial backers.
"We're a permanent political operation here in town. We're not going to be Johnny One Note," said Joe Eule, executive director of the expanding group, a nonprofit organization that many are describing as the MoveOn.org of the right.
The current Freedom's Watch staff of about 20 will be more than doubled in the coming months. In December, the group lured Ed Patru, the message chief for House Republicans, away from Capitol Hill to run its aggressive communications arm.
The group's offices, above the posh Caucus Room restaurant downtown, are being outfitted with a modern studio so the staff can send ads to TV and radio stations across the country on a moment's notice.
And Freedom's Watch will have money -- a lot of money. While initial reports suggested a budget of $200 million, people who have talked to the group in recent weeks say the figure is closer to $250 million, more than double the amount spent by the largest independent liberal groups in the 2004 election cycle.
"I'm happy to have any help I can get on the battlefield," said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, which has badly trailed its counterpart, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, in fundraising.
Independent groups have been a staple of American politics since election laws five years ago prohibited national parties from raising unlimited amounts of money from wealthy individuals, unions and corporations. In the last presidential campaign, the liberal groups America Votes and Media Fund spent about $100 million apiece on a get-out-the-vote effort and a TV attack campaign, respectively.
On the right, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth spent $22 million attacking the military credentials of the Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.). In 2005 and 2006, the conservative Progress for America spent tens of millions of dollars supporting the Supreme Court nominations of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.
Federal laws prevent independent groups from directly advocating or opposing specific candidates, so most of these groups tend to disappear as quickly as they arrive, folding when the election or the debate they are trying to influence concludes. MoveOn.org is an important exception. Founded a decade ago to urge Congress to censure President Bill Clinton for his affair with Monica S. Lewinsky and "move on," the group grew into a leading liberal voice.
Enter Freedom's Watch.
"There is a sense among those contributing to Freedom's Watch that MoveOn powerfully filled a void in the left, that rallied support in the left, that raised money from the left, that mobilized the left," said Ari Fleischer, a former Bush press secretary and a Freedom's Watch founder. The other organizers are Bradley A. Blakeman, another former Bush White House official, and Mel Sembler, a Florida strip-mall magnate who served as Bush's ambassador to Italy.
Wes Boyd, who co-founded MoveOn.org with his wife in their home in Berkeley, Calif., said the two groups are fundamentally different because his liberal organization was set up outside the influence of Democratic Party operatives and is funded primarily by small-dollar donors around the country.
Freedom's Watch, on the other hand, is "doing attack ads by Beltway operatives, financed by billionaires, at the request of the White House," Boyd said by e-mail. "MoveOn helps millions of real people get engaged and be heard and is solely funded by these same people."
For much of the debate over campaign finance legislation earlier this decade, Republicans argued that Congress should rein in independent political groups, known as 527 organizations because of the part of the tax code that governs them. Because those groups leaned primarily Democratic, the Democrats resisted.
"Now they're reaping what they sowed," Cole said.
Many 527s have faced tight scrutiny from the Federal Election Commission, so some operatives -- including the Freedom's Watch founders -- have decided to open political groups under a different section of the tax code that has received little attention from regulators, according to legal experts.
The organization was conceived at a Florida meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition last spring with the initial aim of defending Bush's policies in Iraq and Iran. But like its inspiration and antagonist, it has moved on.
The aggressively negative anti-illegal-immigration ads that ran during the Ohio special election race strayed far from Middle East policy, but the ad campaign -- like the group itself -- was bankrolled largely by Sheldon G. Adelson, a Las Vegas casino executive who last year pledged an unprecedented $200 million to Jewish and Israeli causes.
Adelson personally wrote an $80,000 check to Freedom's Watch on Dec. 7, according to Federal Election Commission documents, just four days before the election that gave Republican Robert Latta the House seat representing the district around Bowling Green. Behind a blood-red foreground, the group's ad showed Latinos hurrying under fences and being frisked by police as a narrator accused Democratic candidate Robin Weirauch and "liberals in Congress" of supporting free health care for illegal immigrants.
Fleischer said the turn toward the immigration issue should not have been a surprise.
"To us it wasn't a broadening" of the mission, he said. "We said prosperity through free enterprise and domestic issues were going to be on the agenda. But something had to come first, and what came first was the 'surge' and the president's policies in Iraq."
Fleischer cautioned that the scope of the group's involvement in the 2008 elections has not been decided. But the roughly $100,000 ad campaign in Ohio is a good indication.
After Latta won, the DCCC chairman, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), issued a memo warning fellow Democrats about the new independent group gunning for them. Van Hollen's campaign committee has $31 million, compared with $2.3 million for the Republicans' committee, but he is deeply concerned that independent groups on the right are now engaged in congressional races while liberal groups are focused on the presidential race.
When it comes to political money, "there's a whole other universe out there," Van Hollen said he told Democrats. "Don't get lulled into a false sense of security."
Democrats are particularly concerned about the impact these groups can have against vulnerable incumbents from rural districts, where TV advertising is less expensive. "Those are congressional districts where a little bit of money can go a long way," Van Hollen said.
As an appetizer, Freedom's Watch took out full-page ads last fall in the local newspapers of seven freshman House Democrats from rural districts, targeting their antiwar votes and linking them to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
Many in Freedom Watch's donor base -- including Adelson, the chairman and chief executive of the Las Vegas Sands Corp., and Sembler, the strip-mall magnate from St. Petersburg, Fla. -- have always been strong supporters of Israel. The group's initial ad blitz in defense of Bush's troop buildup in Iraq came naturally out of those interests.
To start, Freedom's Watch is raking in huge donations from a few donors, a model that the NRCC and other federally sanctioned campaign groups cannot follow, because donation sizes are limited by law. And like MoveOn, Freedom's Watch intends to augment that approach with a grass-roots fundraising model that energizes a base of supporters as it brings in money.
"If you're going to be a permanent organization that has real impact on public policy, you have to have significant financial supporters and you have to broaden your base," Fleischer said. "We are going to try to do both."