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Let the Attack Ads Roll!


These two types of groups have raised more than $76.9 million in 2007--nearly $13 million more than they raised in the year leading up to the 2004 elections--and are sure to have a strong impact on the upcoming election. Here, a guide to some of the groups you’re sure to hear more from in the coming months.

The Fund For America (Democrats)

Who they are: Headed by John Podesta, former chief of staff for Bill Clinton and head of the Center for American Progress. Other major players are Taco Bell heir Rob McKay and SEIU Secretary-Treasurer Anna Burger. “If [Podesta] is involved in a 527,” says Democratic pollster Peter Hart, “they’ll make a difference.”

What they do: The group mostly funds other 527s that support Democratic candidates at all levels. The group recently gave $2.5 million to Campaign to Defend America, the previous incarnation of Progressive Media USA (see below), and has distributed $5.1 million in funds to liberal groups so far in 2008.

What they want: The group is a catch-all for Democratic fundraising, and is viewed as the main vehicle for distributing funds to groups across the spectrum. Seeking to create a “progressive majority voice in public affairs,” they have been accused of being essentially an unregulated extension of the Democratic Party.

Major donors: Among the group’s more prominent donors are billionaire George Soros (who gave $3.5 million), real estate heir Steve Bing ($2.5 million), Bonanza Oil president Lee Fikes ($600,000), and Slim-Fast founder S. Daniel Abraham ($300,000).

Why you’ll hear about them: By funding other groups rather than pursuing their own advertising and advocacy, the Fund could dodge many of the “express advocacy” legal battles that have plagued 527s in the past. The group’s already strong fundraising and high-profile donors could make it a clearinghouse for Democratic money, especially considering its goal of raising $100 million for the 2008 election alone.

Bonus sleaze: McKay’s last political beneficiary, America Coming Together, was fined $775,000 by the FEC for violating campaign finance rules. Bing generated attention in 2001 after Elizabeth Hurley declared him the father of her unborn baby—later proven by a paternity test, earning him the nickname of “Bing Laden” in England.

Progressive Media USA (Democrats)*

Who they are: Led by David Brock, former right-wing journalist turned Media Matters founder. Paul Begala, a political strategist who worked on Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, has been described as a consultant for the group.

What they want: The group is trying to compensate for perceived shortcomings in the fundraising of Democratic 527 Fund for America. Ben Smith at Politico has reported that Brock, recently the author of Free Ride: John McCain and the Media, wants to make up for what he sees as a lack of media criticism of John McCain.

What they do: The group has said it will spend $40 million on a media campaign against McCain. In its previous incarnation, Campaign to Defend America, the group ran an ad in Pennsylvania and Ohio called "McSame." It has already started buying ads on CNN and MSNBC in the Washington, D.C. area. Major Donors: Soros has had meetings with Brock and is said to have pledged his support. “Brock runs on his kneepads wherever Soros tells him to go,” says Republican political consultant Rick Wilson.

Why you’ll hear about them: This group seems to be leading the Democratic offensive in the general election, already having raised nearly twice as much as Fund for America in 2008.

Bonus sleaze: Brock was the author of the “troopergate” article in The American Spectator, which alleged that Arkansas state troopers had arranged sexual liaisons for Bill Clinton when he was governor of the state, leading to Paula Jones’ lawsuit against President Clinton. In 1998, after a Republican fundraiser admitted to paying the state troopers, Brock issued a public apology to Clinton, saying that he wrote the article as part of an “anti-Clinton crusade.” Voter Fund (Democrats)

Who they are: Originally founded in 1998 in response to President Clinton’s impeachment trial, the organization started as an e-mail group created by married couple Joan Blades and Wes Boyd.

What they do: As their website makes clear, the “MoveOn Family” includes a PAC, a 501(c)4, and a 527 (the Voter Fund), which “primarily runs ads exposing Bush’s failed policies in key ‘battleground’ states.”

What they want: The MoveOn Family endorsed Senator Barack Obama for president in February, the first time the group has endorsed a presidential candidate during the primary. They also jumped into the nomination battle by sending out e-mails to their vast list-serv criticizing the strong-arm tactics of Clinton donors.

Major Donors: Soros was an early and ardent supporter of MoveOn, as is Hyatt Hotel heiress Linda Pritzker.

Why you’ll hear about them: MoveOn’s long lifespan makes them a favorite target for Republican groups, who cite their 2007 “General Betray-Us” New York Times ad as a sign of the group’s radicalism. Republican group Freedom’s Watch (see below) has specifically said they formed as a response to Voter Fund. “The biggest challenge for MoveOn is that love to have notoriety and impact,” says Dem pollster Hart, “but sometimes notoriety runs counter to impact.” Despite these controversies, the group’s high profile has given them a huge base, with their list-serv reaching 3.2 million members of the MoveOn “family,” according to the group. While the 527 wing receives large donations, the PAC and 501(c)4 groups are committed to grassroots initiatives that mobilize a large network of voters.

Bonus sleaze: The group was fined $150,000 in 2006 for its fundraising practices in the 2004 election, including running ads in battleground states that expressly advocated the defeat of Bush. Also, they were criticized for an advertisement comparing George W. Bush to Hitler.

Progress for America (Republicans)

Who they are: Originally founded in 2003 by Tony Feather, a political director for Bush-Cheney 2000 and an associate of Karl Rove, the group is closely connected with the consulting firm DCI Group, which was also a participant in the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth Campaign; Chris LaCivita, the media advisor for Swift Boat, also worked for PFA. Tom Synhorst, chairman of DCI, is rumored to be assuming leadership of the group for the 2008 election. While the group has carefully avoided media attention thus far, it is expected to begin rolling out ads once the general election begins in earnest. (A DCI Group spokesman denies that Synhorst will be taking the helm of PFA and says the firm “does not participate in political campaigns or endorse any candidate from any party for office.”)**

What they want: The group supports Republican causes of all stripes, focusing on the general election as well as promoting the party’s pro–Iraq war, anti-immigration agenda more broadly.

What they do: The group spent $38 million in 2004 on ads supporting Bush, and has since run ads for his Supreme Court nominees and in support of the war in Iraq. In 2004, one of its most effective ads was “Ashley’s Story,” which showed Bush with a young girl whose mother was killed on September 11.

Major donors: In 2004, Dawn Arnall (wife of late billionaire Roland Arnall) gave $5 million to PFA. Other past donors rumored to be ponying up in 2008 include Univision owner A Jerrold Perenchio and Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens (no relation to Slim).

Why you’ll hear about them: The group has amazing staying power and will almost definitely play a major fundraising role in 2008. Even after paying a $750,000 settlement in 2007 for its role in the 2004 elections, which included blatant advocacy, the group remains politically powerful.

American Future Fund (Republicans)

Who they are: Founded by long-time Republican operatives Alex N. Vogel and his wife, Jill Holtzman Vogel, who together run the consulting agency Holtzman Vogel. The couple is joined by Republican pollster Jan Van Lohuizen, who previously worked for George W. Bush. The president of the group, Nicole Schlinger, is the former executive director of the Iowa Republican Party.

What they want: Their website claims that this 501(c)4 “was formed to provide Americans with a conservative and free market viewpoint to have a mechanism to communicate and advocate on the issues that most interest and concern them.”

What they do: This group is geared toward helping Republicans in congressional races, allowing others to focus on the presidential election. So far, their activities have included an extensive campaign ad against the Democratic contender in a Minnesota senatorial election, as well as some suspiciously timed polling in Louisiana that appears to have been coordinated with Freedom’s Watch (see below). Additionally, the group’s affiliate, Iowa Future Fund, has been operating in Iowa and it is widely speculated that their operations will expand during the general election.

Major donors: Its difficult to track major donors, as their anonymity is a major bonus of 501(c)4 status.

Why you’ll hear about them: Minnesota Democrats have already filed an FEC complaint against the group, claiming that its ads for Senator Norm Coleman are blatant advocacy. The group’s connection to well-known and powerful Republicans, including pollster Lohuizen and Progress for America co-founder Brian Kennedy, has led to speculation that the group is going to be a major player in the general election.

Freedom’s Watch (Republicans)

Who they are: Until recently, the group was headed by Bradley Blakeman, a former Bush White House official. His resignation in March led to speculation that the group is experiencing internal difficulties. Up-and-coming Republican operative Joe Eule is the current executive director and occasional blogger for the group’s site. Former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer, who serves as the group's spokesman, remains with the group, as does Republican operative Carl Forti. “Freedom’s Watch is definitely going to be a major player in this campaign,” says Wilson, the GOP consultant.

What they want: The group’s "core issues" include: “The dangers of radical Islam and the emerging Iranian threat; advancing a conservative agenda and market-based solutions to pressing domestic problems; standing up to Big Labor’s radical agenda; and preventing the degeneration of our society by stopping the legalization of controlled substances.”

What they do: The group financed a major media blitz in support of the Iraq war last summer that cost $15 million. In January, it launched a six-figure campaign against a Democratic candidate for a House special election in northern Ohio. The group has pledged to continue a wide variety of advocacy projects instead of focusing entirely on the general election.

Major Donors: Much of its support so far has come from Las Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelson, recently ranked the third richest person in America, as well as Mel Sembler, a leader in the group and millionaire-cum-ambassador to Italy under the current Bush administration.

Why you’ll hear about them: This GOP fundraising giant has bragged about financial commitments of up to $200 million. The group has set their fundraising goal at $250 million for the general election. The financial backers involved, combined with the high profile stance the group is taking, make it seem that Freedom’s Watch will be a major player on the Republican side. Described as the “conservative answer to MoveOn,” Freedom’s Watch has struggled with internal conflicts but still seems poised to be a major player in the general election.

Bonus sleaze: Before becoming ambassador and a GOP operative, Mel Sembler was the founder of Straight, Inc., a group of drug rehabilitation programs that were accused of child abuse. One particularly enraged former client dug through Sembler’s trash for years before finding Sembler’s discarded penis pump, which he promptly put on eBay.

Cara Parks is a writer based in New York and a former web intern for The New Republic.

*Correction: Soon after this piece was fact-checked, Progressive Media USA’s deputy director reportedly announced that the group will be re-launched as a subsidiary of the Center for American Progress Action Fund and Media Matters--also run by David Brock. It has abandoned its plans for a mass media campaign, in part because such ads have been discouraged by the Obama campaign.

**Update: This article was updated to include a response from the DCI Group.

By Cara Parks