Group With Swift Boat Alumni Readies Ads Attacking Obama

By Matthew Mosk and Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, September 14, 2008

A new group financed by a Texas billionaire and organized by some of the same political operatives and donors behind the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign against Sen. John F. Kerry in 2004 plans to begin running television ads attacking Barack Obama, a signal that outside groups may play a larger role than anticipated in the closing days of the presidential race.

The American Issues Project has amassed a multimillion-dollar fund, and the group is putting the final touches on an eleventh-hour campaign targeting the Democratic presidential nominee, sources said.

"We expect to be doing both issues and express advocacy between now and November and beyond," said Christian Pinkston, a spokesman for the group.

The effort could mark a sharp turn in what has been an unusually quiet year for outside political groups. At this point in 2004, such groups had already spent about $100 million dollars on television commercials attacking Kerry (D-Mass.) and President Bush, but they have devoted $8 million to ads so far in this election cycle.

The resurgence on the right appears as though it will not go unanswered. The Service Employees International Union is set to unveil a multimillion-dollar television campaign on Monday, and other liberal and Democratic-aligned groups are rushing to establish financing for efforts over the final weeks of the campaign.

At the outset of the general election, both Obama and Republican nominee John McCain called on outside groups to stay on the sidelines, hoping to steer funds to their own campaigns and party committees. Several initial attempts to organize independent groups for the 2008 presidential contest fizzled early on. But as the back and forth has grown more intense in recent weeks, both campaigns have signaled that their opposition to such efforts is softening.

AIP emerged on the scene in August, airing controversial anti-Obama ads in four battleground states -- Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan -- that sought to raise questions about his ties to William Ayers, a member of the Vietnam War-era radical group known as the Weathermen. The ad was sponsored entirely -- at a cost of more than $2 million -- by Harold Simmons, a Dallas-based businessman who also helped fund the Swift boat activities four years ago.

The new group was launched by Chris LaCivita, who was intimately involved in the Swift boat campaign, and Tony Feather, one of the co-founders of Progress for America, which spent tens of millions backing Bush in 2004.

According to sources familiar with AIP, it has secured significant financial backing from a handful of major donors and is planning more ads like the Ayers commercial in the weeks between now and Election Day.

Four years ago, mid-September might have been too late to organize for November. But the rules for outside groups changed after a recent Supreme Court opinion that loosened restrictions on corporate and union electioneering within 60 days of the general election. That enabled groups such as AIP, which is organized as a nonprofit corporation, more leeway to launch last-minute attack ads.

On the Democratic side, much of that effort appears to be falling to labor unions and a handful of well-known advocacy groups such as and the Sierra Club. In the spring, a coalition of liberal groups that included the AFL-CIO announced plans to spend $350 million on political activities during the 2008 campaign season, but they have been slow in coming together.

Ilyse Hogue, the campaign director for confirmed that the group will spearhead an ad campaign focused on what has emerged as the central theme of the fall campaign, the question of which candidate is better equipped to bring change to Washington.

"The fight is over whose plan for change is real, whose is genuine. And we're looking to put that in front of voters," Hogue said. "When you look at McCain and [GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah] Palin's ties to Big Oil, it doesn't pass the laugh test that they are for change."

Having spent recent elections watching conservative groups bombard Democratic candidates by taking a disciplined message to the television and talk radio airwaves, the leaders of several major left-leaning groups said they are ready to answer back.

"After years of watching the other side do this, it's finally something we've really gotten strong at," Hogue said.

But Republicans appear to have a head start. In April, Simmons, a corporate tycoon who had spent heavily on the Swift boat campaign, began holding meetings with other Swift boat donors to discuss renewing their effort for 2008-- meetings that included input from Bush's former strategist, Karl Rove.

At one of the meetings, Simmons presented his plans to oilman T. Boone Pickens, another financier of the Swift boat efforts, at a gathering in Simmons's Dallas office, Pickens said. Pickens ultimately chose not to get involved but said several others decided to forge ahead. Rove is not directly involved in the American Issues Project but has provided advice to a group targeting Democratic candidates for the Senate and House, known as Freedom's Watch.

American Issues Project is organized as a qualified 501(c)4 under Internal Revenue Service guidelines. As such an entity, AIP must use 60 percent of all its funding to make issues-based appeals but can use the remaining 40 percent to directly advocate for or against the election of a candidate. Any money spent for express advocacy must be reported through the Federal Election Commission, meaning that donors to the group will eventually have their identities revealed.

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