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Group Aims Its Ads -- Even If It Means Stealing Its Candidates' Show

By Jackie Koszczuk, CQ Staff Writer

The American Insurance Association (AIA) has this to say to candidates who complain of losing control of their campaigns to well-heeled outsiders: Stop your whining and get used to it. That goes for the savvy trade group's friends as well as its enemies -- the pro-business Republicans who generally support its agenda and the labor-friendly Democrats who do not.

"The candidates are not the only ones who can talk about the issues. The political ruling class has to get a grip on life," says David Carney, a former Bush White House political director recruited by the AIA and some of its allies to run a new organization called Americans for Job Security.

Unlike other business alliances also planning issue advocacy campaigns this fall, Americans for Job Security plans to spend more money, start early, stay late and shape issues rather than merely respond to an opponent -- namely labor and environmental groups that used issue ads with gusto in the 1996 congressional elections.

The group's promotional material says that while others "play defense against the labor unions," it will "play offense, introducing a pro-business agenda to the public."

It plans to get involved in 15 to 20 races, running TV commercials promoting its top issues -- education reform, revamping the Internal Revenue Service, cutting taxes and reducing the size and scope of government.

Taxpayers Featured

The organization already has run ads this year in two districts: in the Lois Capps-Tom Bordonaro special election in California's 22nd District and in Republican Rep. Nancy L. Johnson's 6th District in Connecticut.

It ran three TV ads in Johnson's district around the time of the April 15 deadline for filing tax forms with the IRS. In Harry and Louise fashion, the ads featured everyday Americans talking about their future pensions, about taxes so high that parents are forced to leave their children to go to work and about taxpayers' problems with IRS audits.

The ads, which ran every day for two weeks in the Hartford television market, do not urge a vote for Johnson, but they conclude with an announcer saying, "Join Nancy Johnson in the fight for real tax reform."

Johnson, a member of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee and a strong supporter of a bill to revamp the IRS, will not know who her Democratic opponent is until the state's September primary, but she has had to slog through increasingly tough re-election races in recent years.

Chief of Staff Dave Karvelas said Johnson was initially concerned about the group's uninvited involvement but was relieved when she saw the ads. "It certainly is not going to hurt her to have ads on TV that recognize her accomplishments in tax reform," Karvelas said.

The same was not true for Bordonaro, the GOP candidate in California's 22nd District. Americans for Job Security was among the outside groups that fought among themselves in the Santa Barbara-based district, relegating the candidates to the status of secondary players.

Bordonaro, who lost to Capps, publicly declared that he wanted the outside groups to butt out, but that demand had no impact on Americans for Job Security's decision to run $40,000 worth of ads in the district.

The problem with the involvement of such outside groups, said Ed Gillespie, a top GOP communications strategist, is that "their goal is not always to win on Election Day so much as it is to influence public opinion. . . . And that in many cases can result in a loss for the candidate that is best for their issues."

Carney dismisses such arguments. He said, "That's an arrogant, elitist attitude. And I reject it as absolute hogwash."

Candidates would not be so worried, he said, if they stopped talking about school uniforms and started talking about school reform and other issues vital to everyday Americans.

Americans for Job Security is the brainchild of AIA President Robert Vagley, who came to believe that big business had to show as much initiative in 1998 as labor did in 1996.

He conceived of a five-year plan, during which the group would try to create a more receptive climate for issues such as regulatory reform by going outside the Beltway to appeal to the public. Americans for Job Security was created last October with the goal of raising $12 million in 1998 and $20 million in each of the four following years. The plan is ambitious, with its fundraising goals exceeding those of other politically active business groups.

Fundraising has not been as successful as organizers had hoped. "Asking a trade association for $1 million a year for five years, that's pretty rich for a lot of people's blood," said a prominent GOP lobbyist familiar with the group.

So far, Carney said, the group has more than $9 million in commitments from a dozen organizations, including a $1 million pledge from the American Forest & Paper Association, headed by former Deputy Energy Secretary W. Henson Moore, who was a Republican House member from Louisiana from 1975-87. One trade group official solicited by the group said its in-hand commitments were closer to $4.5 million.

One target is Wisconsin, where GOP Rep. Mark W. Neumann is trying to take Democrat Russell D. Feingold's Senate seat and where there are two open seats, Neumann's and retiring GOP Rep. Scott L. Klug's. Two Democratic freshmen in the state -- Ron Kind and Jay W. Johnson -- are also trying to stave off GOP challengers.

The organization's active strategy has been well-received by Republicans and lobbyists who think the strategy of another business group, The Coalition, only reacts to the unions and does not go far enough to promote a pro-business political agenda.

© 1998 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All Rights Reserved.
In CQ News This Week

Saturday May 2, 1998

Arkansas Republicans Try To Further Erode Democratic Stronghold
Group Aims Its Ads -- Even If It Means Stealing Its Candidates' Show
Tight Races for Goodling and Fox Test Influence Of Ideology, Money
Independent Groups' Ads Increasingly Steer Campaigns

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