Cashing In From the Outside


By: Wall Street Journal

Unlimited Donations Boost Political Clout Of Independent Groups
By BRODY MULLINS

WASHINGTON — The endgame has begun in Iowa’s Jan. 3 presidential primary race, and it may be shaped as much by independent interest groups as by the candidates themselves.

Most of the action has been in support of Democrats. A labor-backed group run by John Edwards’s 2004 campaign manager is running more than $1 million in ads supporting the former North Carolina senator. New York Sen. Hillary Clinton has benefited from more than $2 million spent by outside groups. And a labor union that backs Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd recently paid $1,800 for billboard advertising touting his candidacy.

Outside groups that can accept unlimited donations have taken on a bigger electoral role in the wake of the 2002 campaign-finance law overhaul that banned large donations to political parties. The parties don’t support presidential candidates in the primary process, and election rules prohibit candidates from coordinating their campaigns with outside groups.

But for many outside groups, supporting candidates early is a crucial step to getting a sympathetic candidate in the White House. The strategy is reflected in the groups’ spending: More than $4 million has been spent in Iowa on television advertisements, mailings and bumper stickers, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission.

Mrs. Clinton has been the biggest target of outside spending, both good and bad. Unions and advocacy groups have spent $1.4 million to support her, while another $840,000 was spent denouncing her, largely by conservative groups that have used her candidacy to raise money.

On the Republican side, a group called Americans for Fair Taxation is promoting former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. The free-market Club for Growth is running advertisements against him, and announced this week it would spend an additional $175,000 on ads, for a total of $550,000 in just three weeks. Taking a similar tack, Common Sense Issues Inc., an independent campaign group, is waging a campaign against former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

There has been more activity by the outside groups for Democrats in part because Democratic interest groups tend to be more involved in elections than Republican ones. Labor unions, for example, have a long tradition of political activity, while corporations tend to remain neutral in presidential primaries or hedge their bets with support for candidates in both parties.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees has spent more than $900,000 on ads, polling and mailings on Mrs. Clinton’s behalf. A recent mailing sent to Iowa residents slams Mr. Obama’s health-care plan.

The flyer says it was paid for by the labor union but doesn’t say which candidate the union supports. Language inside the flyer makes it appear that the negative attack was sponsored by Mr. Edwards — something that could turn off voters to Mr. Edwards’s campaign. “John Edwards has said ‘as many as 15 million Americans would be without coverage [under Mr. Obama's plan],’” the flyer says. The union has publicly endorsed Mrs. Clinton.

Mrs. Clinton also is getting help from the American Federation of Teachers, which has spent $600,000 on radio ads in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Emily’s List, an organization that backs Democratic women who support abortion rights, has spent about $500,000 on Mrs. Clinton’s behalf. The organization launched a voter-education campaign to explain how the caucus process works, after finding many women planned to skip the vote because they were intimidated by the process.

So far, Emily’s List says that 7,000 people have been to its Web site explaining the process and providing “talking points” to use to describe why they support Mrs. Clinton. In the 2004 primary, Sen. John Kerry defeated Mr. Edwards in Iowa by about 8,000 votes out of 124,000 cast.

Last week, Emily’s List announced plans to help Mrs. Clinton in New Hampshire. The group says it hopes to reach more than 50,000 Democratic women voters with a series of mailings.

Candidates aren’t always grateful for the help — at least publicly — because it can carry the taint of outside influence. Mr. Edwards has explicitly denounced the support of the Alliance for a New America, which is funded by a coalition of local chapters of the Service Employees International Union and called a 527 group because of its tax designation.

“I do not support 527 groups,” Mr. Edwards said Saturday. “They are part of the law, but let me be clear: I am asking this group and others not to run the ads.”

The alliance has spent $750,000 on behalf of Mr. Edwards. The United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners has spent about $400,000 on television advertisements and another $40,000 on bumper stickers, T-shirts, hard-hat decals and other campaign trinkets.

The groups also work for candidates in other ways that don’t show up on FEC reports. Many organizations have sent people to Iowa to knock on doors and get Iowans to the caucus next week.

The United Steelworkers Union has asked their members to take the day off on Caucus Day and go to Iowa to help round up votes for Mr. Edwards. “John Edwards is going to win Iowa and the reason is because of the steelworkers,” said Chuck Rocha, who is helping to organize the effort.

–T.W. Farnam contributed to this article.

Write to Brody Mullins at brody.mullins@wsj.com

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