By Karen Tumulty
Saturday, September 25, 2010; A3
Even in this anti-Washington political climate, 12-term Democratic Rep. Peter DeFazio had not been on anyone's endangered list. He generally breezes to reelection in his southwestern Oregon district by 60 percent or better.
But last Tuesday, something curious happened.
A group calling itself Concerned Taxpayers of America started running television spots - a substantial ad buy of $86,000 - contending that DeFazio had been in league with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in wrecking the economy. It also touted DeFazio's Republican opponent Art Robinson as "a new voice, a smarter choice, the independent leader we need."
As attack ads go, that is pretty mild fare. But its origin puzzled both DeFazio and his little-known opponent.
"I'm delighted to have their help, but the truth is, I have no idea who is doing this," said Robinson, a chemist who is popular on the conservative circuit for his work casting doubt that global warming is manmade.
Robinson's benefactor has spent more on advertising on his behalf than his own campaign has. But there seems to be no record of an organization called Concerned Taxpayers of America, outside a few filings at the Federal Election Commission. The filings list a Capitol Hill address and the name of a treasurer, Republican political consultant Jason Miller.
Miller declined to say who is funding the group. He described the backers only as "folks who are concerned about the direction this country's economy is going and want to make their voices heard."
The names behind those voices apparently will remain a mystery - at least until the organization has to make a quarterly filing to the FEC in October.
"Is this a corporation? Is it one very wealthy, right-wing individual? Is it a foreign interest? Is it a drug gang?" DeFazio said. "We don't know."
A U.S. Supreme Court decision earlier this year legalized unlimited corporate and union spending to support or denounce individual candidates. Often that money is channeled through groups that conceal, at least temporarily, the source of the funds. The law does not allow these outside organizations to coordinate their efforts with the candidates they support.
Outside groups have focused thus far on close contests. In DeFazio's case, it appears the new organization is attempting to test whether an incumbent who was previously considered safe might be vulnerable.
With the political winds blowing as strong as they are against the Democrats this year, DeFazio acknowledged this might not be such a bad bet. "I have a marginal district, and I've made it look easy," he said. "This is an unusual year, so perhaps they see an angle."
On Friday, DeFazio hiked over to the Capitol Hill townhouse listed as the group's address to deliver a letter asking it to release the names of its donors by the end of next week.
With journalists from The Washington Post and the Huffington Post in tow, the congressman rang the bell, knocked on the door and then shouted through the mail slot.
Then DeFazio peered through the front window. "It doesn't look too lived in," he said. "A couple of pieces of furniture, some garden chairs."
Finally, a young man answered the door.
He said he was a renter who was not acquainted with Concerned Taxpayers of America or its treasurer Jason Miller.
Miller later acknowledged that the young man at the house does indeed work for him. "He's a junior staffer who didn't know what to say when he got ambushed by DeFazio," Miller said. "He shouldn't have said that."
Staff writer T.W. Farnam contributed to this report.