GOP May Find Comfort in Soft Money

By Chris Cillizza and Shailagh Murray
Sunday, March 30, 2008

Congressional Republicans in the doldrums about the rash of retirements in their ranks and the fundraising woes that have dogged them throughout this election cycle should take heart -- the soft money just might be coming.

Two recent developments in the vast world of independent groups hoping to influence the political debate should perk up the ears of any political junkie.

The first is the emergence of the American Future Fund, a group with ties to several high-profile Republican consultants that recently began running ads in Minnesota touting the legislative agenda of Sen. Norm Coleman (R).

"An independent voice for Minnesota," says the ad's narrator. "Call Norm Coleman and thank him for his agenda for Minnesota."

The AFF raised initial money to fund the Minnesota ads. Staffers for the organization were also on the ground in New Hampshire last week. It seems hardly coincidental that both states will play host to highly competitive Senate contests in November.

The second development is the hiring of Carl Forti to take over the political operation at Freedom's Watch, a group formed last fall by a number of former Bush administration officials.

Forti has spent much of the decade at the National Republican Congressional Committee, running the communications and independent expenditure operations at the House Republican campaign arm. Earlier this year, he served as national political director for the presidential campaign of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.

Freedom's Watch already weighed in on a House race late last year when it funded an ad that attacked the Democratic candidate in an Ohio special election as being soft on immigration. But the group took a pass on a hotly contested special election in Illinois this year that Republicans lost.

The emergence of the AFF and the hiring of Forti have stoked speculation, particularly among Democrats, that these two organizations will spend heavily to prop up the lightly funded Republican campaign committees. "We've been singing this song for a while," said Jen Crider, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's communications director. "It was clear when the NRCC couldn't get it together that this was the route the Republicans were going to pick up the slack."

The benefit to Republicans of well-funded groups dedicated to the House and Senate is clear. The NRCC trails its Democratic counterpart in cash on hand by 8 to 1, while Senate Republicans have less than half as much cash in the bank as the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

To make up that difference in hard-dollar contributions -- limited to $28,500 per year per individual -- that the national party committees can accept is a gargantuan task. But both Freedom's Watch and the American Future Fund are set up as 501(c)(4) groups, a not-for-profit tax designation that allows them to advocate on issues, if not directly for candidates. The other key attribute of the 501(c)(4) is that it can accept unlimited contributions and does not have to ever disclose its donors.

Spokesmen for each group said no decisions have been made about where the focus of their time and resources would go, but both made it clear that the AFF and Freedom's Watch will be active in the election.

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