Candidates Expect 'Issue Advocacy' Season
By Ruth Marcus
In Campaign '98, the opposition is more than just the other names on the ballot.
Candidates, political parties and outside groups are gearing up for a campaign season in which advertising by forces other than the candidates may play a critical, and in some places even dominant, role. "What we're telling the campaigns is just be aware of what the opposition is doing and the opposition is not just your opponent but other groups that are going to try to influence the election," said David Hansen, political director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
The vehicles of choice for political parties and outside groups are "issue advocacy" ads that look and sound like regular campaign commercials but, because they don't directly advocate the election or defeat of particular candidates, fall outside the normal financing rules.
"Every candidate, incumbent and challenger alike, is expecting vast amounts of issue advocacy ads," said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. "You prepare mainly by biting your fingernails. You don't know what's going to happen, neither side has control over it, and they [outside groups] don't always follow the rational rules of engagement because they have their own agendas."
Labor unions and the Democratic Party deployed issue advocacy ads on a huge scale two years ago, and with language about particular candidates far more pointed than had been used previously. By election time, the GOP, business groups, environmentalists and others had joined the fray, spending more than $135 million beyond what individual candidates themselves poured into the races.
"I don't think American politics will ever be the same. You can expect to see sizable advertising and direct-mail campaigns by outside interest groups as far as the eye can see," said Ralph Reed, who headed one of the most influential outside groups, the Christian Coalition, before becoming a GOP political consultant.
Some strategists said that while they expected even more outside groups to air such ads in 1998, they did not anticipate that the amount spent would come close to the 1996 total. Indeed, unions which led the issue advertising charge during the 1996 elections are focusing on a more traditional grass-roots approach this time, as well as putting millions of dollars into defeating state ballot initiatives that would restrict union political spending. The unions' different approach has had a ripple effect among business groups that mounted a counterattack to the labor efforts two years ago.
"I think there is a possibility that we all may not see quite the same kind of effort this time" as in 1996, said Bruce Josten of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which helped organize the business coalition.
Still, political parties and strategists for individual campaigns are preparing for an onslaught of outside advertising.
Issue advertising is attractive to outside groups because it is not subject to the usual restrictions on raising and spending money. Corporations, unions and other organizations can pay for the advertising out of their general treasury funds, rather than having to raise it for their political action committees in maximum increments of $5,000. The sources and amount of spending also don't have to be publicly disclosed.
"Now anybody with an ax to grind and a checkbook can fly into a district, put it on TV and move numbers," said GOP consultant Mike Murphy. "It's, 'The water's warm. Everybody in.' "
Political parties also can mount issue advocacy campaigns, paid for in part with "soft money" donations not subject to federal limits. In such ads, parties or groups can't directly advocate the election or defeat of particular candidates. However, they can name candidates, praise or, if 1996 is any guide, more often assail their records, and otherwise make clear which outcome they prefer.
As Tanya Metaksa, executive director of the National Rifle Association's Institute for Legislative Action, explained in a speech to political consultants last year, "It is foolish to believe there is any practical difference between issue advocacy and advocacy of a political candidate. What separates issue advocacy and political advocacy is a line in the sand drawn on a windy day."
The Democratic and Republican party committees are prodding their candidates to raise more money earlier as a cushion against a possible barrage of issue ads. "It's been a great motivating factor," said Dan Sallick, communications director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "There is a real awareness out there that you don't want to be in a position where outside factors control the outcome of your race." In addition, Sallick said, the DCCC plans its own issue advocacy effort. "We are not going to just rely on other outside groups that are talking about issues favorable to Democrats," he said.
At the National Republican Congressional Committee, the House Republicans' campaign arm, communications director Mary Mead Crawford pointed to the special election last March for the California House seat left open by the death of Rep. Walter Capps (D), in which a variety of outside groups weighed in. "That was a sign of what's to come and we are telling our candidates to expect that," she said.
Crawford said she expected that unlike 1996, when the issue advocacy "was clearly way lopsided on the Democrat side, I think there will be a greater degree of activity by groups that are more philosophically in tune with Republicans this year."
Democratic pollster Fred Yang said he was worried about the prospect of a last-minute spending blitz by GOP-leaning groups. "We could have a lot of competitive Democratic races and they come in at the end and just blow us away," he said.
Some on the other side have similar anxieties. Josten of the Chamber of Commerce said he was concerned that unions "could drop $20 million" on advertising in the late fall. "We could be caught off-guard," he warned.
Some groups are on the air already. The Sierra Club in April began an issue ad campaign and this week launched the third round in a series on which it expects to spend $1 million. The group is tailoring its commercials to issues of local concern, and commending lawmakers as well as attacking them. For example, one spot featuring a Germantown boy who suffers from asthma praises Rep. Constance A. Morella (R-Md.) for voting "to protect clean air safeguards."
Political director Daniel Weiss said the group decided to begin its advertising more than five months before the election in part for fear of being drowned out by competing advertising later in the year. Weiss also said the group is concentrating its efforts on fewer districts this cycle. "Voters are pretty content and when they're content they're less likely to be paying attention to politics," he said. "We believe it's going to take more contact to have the same amount of impact as in '96."
Meanwhile, a new coalition of business groups, called Americans for Job Security, is aiming for $20 million annually for issue advertising; it says it will reach half that amount this year and will be active in 10 to 15 markets. The group, organized by the American Insurance Association and run by GOP veteran David Carney, plans to promote its own message rather than simply respond to union commercials. It has already been on the air in California and in the Connecticut district of Rep. Nancy L. Johnson (R), a supporter of IRS reform. "Join Nancy Johnson in the fight for real tax reform," the ad says.
Earlier this month, the GOP Senate committee launched an estimated $400,000 campaign boosting Sen. Lauch Faircloth (N.C.), who is facing a tough reelection fight. The ads, which deride Washington as "a crazy city" where "they even elected a convicted drug-user mayor," praised Faircloth for promoting welfare reform.
Term limits groups, abortion rights and antiabortion organizations and other organizations are planning issue ad campaigns, or have already started.
"I think it will be really busy in October and November," said Eric O'Keefe of Americans for Limited Terms, which has been concentrating its efforts on primary battles in part to avoid the crowds of the fall and expects to spend as much as $6 million. "There will be a lot of noise. It will be tougher to have a message cut through."
Reed said he has advised candidates who expect third-party advertising to engage in "preemptive inoculation," warning voters "there are going to be some special-interest groups that are going to come in and try to decide who your congressman is going to be." His client, Kentucky state Sen. Gex "Jay" Williams, used that approach to help fend off an estimated $250,000 spent by term limits backers to win a GOP House primary last month.
Similarly, when Gary Bauer's Campaign for Working Families aired ads that assailed Lois Capps in the California special election for approving of "partial birth" abortions, she fired back with ads that pointedly noted, "Outside interest groups are now attacking me." "I think you can overcome this stuff," Reed said, "and I speak as somebody who's been one of the groups coming in."
Said Bernadette A. Budde of the Business-Industry Political Action Committee, "Issue advocacy could have caught people off-guard in '96. In '98 it may look new. By 2000 it's not going to be a new technique anymore. The campaign world will have adapted."
Staff writer Ceci Connolly contributed to this report.
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