Independent Groups' Ads Increasingly Steer Campaigns
By Donna Cassata, CQ Staff Writer
Coming soon to the airwaves in the Connecticut cities of Waterbury and Danbury are ads that appear to be a freshman Democrat's dream: Sierra Club spots praising the clean air votes of Rep. Jim Maloney.
Yet the Maloney campaign is less than enthusiastic about the positive advertising scheduled to run in the 5th District later this month.
"It causes all kinds of problems," said Doug Dodson, Maloney's campaign manager, who knew nothing about the ads. "You have a message you're working on, and an independent group comes in and their message is the message. We'd be better off if they were not allowed to do it."
Maloney's frustration will have little or no effect on the influential environmental group. The spots are part of a $6 million, election-year effort that the Sierra Club has launched to inform voters about the records of incumbents and the positions of challengers.
The ads, such as the one that will air in Maloney's district, which stretches from wealthy Fairfield County to blue-collar Meriden, will focus on the local impact of clean air legislation. They will urge voters to call the congressman's regional office to tell him to keep up the good work.
This ad is the 1998 version of the phenomenon that swept the nation during the 1996 election cycle, when labor, business and ideological groups spent millions of dollars on issue ads that criticized a candidate or attacked an incumbent's voting record.
Thanks to a 1976 Supreme Court ruling, these organizations are permitted to operate free of the campaign limits on spending and rules on disclosing the source of their funds because they never expressly say "vote for" or "vote against" a candidate.
This year, independent groups are planning to spend even more on issue ads than they have in the past -- making it a phenomenon that seems likely to permanently transform the political landscape.
"I think this is a permanent fixture of American politics," said Rep. Tom Allen, D-Maine, a freshman who in 1996 benefited from AFL-CIO ads attacking his GOP opponent, then-incumbent James B. Longley.
But the third-party advertising, which the organizations say is designed to educate voters, has come under attack for sharply tilting the political playing field and taking campaign decisions out of the hands of the candidates.
Not all the ads are likely to be as kind to the incumbent as the Sierra Club's. In Idaho's 2nd District, Republican front-runner Mike Simpson waits for an onslaught of issue ads, prompted by his highly publicized and unwavering opposition to limits of three two-year terms in the House.
As Simpson describes it, the group sponsoring the ad appears to be engaging in a form of political blackmail. "They effectively said, 'Sign the [term limits] pledge or we're going to do it,' " Simpson said.
U.S. Term Limits and Americans for Limited Terms are working on ads to air in the district before the May 26 primary. In fact, Americans for Limited Terms will be targeting candidates in about 15 House districts in May and June as part of a $6.5 million campaign to get candidates to sign their pledge to serve a limited number of terms (two in the Senate, three in the House).
While these independent groups are moving forward with issue ads, the big spenders of 1996 -- labor and business -- are also raising funds for an election-year offensive. For example:
- Organized labor plans to spend about $28 million this election cycle nationwide, with some of it going to issue advocacy advertising.
- The Coalition: Americans Working for Real Change, a faction of business groups and trade associations led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, is trying to surpass the $5 million it raised in 1996. The sole purpose is to counter labor's effort.
- The Business Roundtable, which comprises the chief executives of the nation's largest corporations, voted to triple its annual dues, ranging from $7,500 to $100,000 per company, to finance an issue advocacy effort that will total $27 million and likely run through 1999. Health care and trade, including support for most-favored-nation trade status for China, will be the group's focus.
- A new business organization, Americans for Job Security, plans to raise $100 million over five years for issue advocacy. They began with $1 million from the American Insurance Association. (Story, p. 1110)
Despite their money-raising activity, however, it is still not yet clear if business and labor will do as much of this type of advertising as they did in the last election cycle. So far, they have been relatively quiet -- leaving the airwaves primarily to the independent ideological groups.
"This year is going to be different," said Jan Baran, who heads the election law and government ethics group at the Washington law firm of Wiley, Rein and Fielding. "Nothing really repeats itself exactly in politics."
Another element that could change is the role of political parties, which are barred from sponsoring this type of advertising. Depending on the courts, this year's spending heavyweights eventually could end up being the parties' committees, not business or labor.
The Republican National Committee, and two state Democratic parties from Idaho and Ohio, have filed suit against the Federal Election Commission to lift the limits on unregulated soft-money spending for issue advocacy advertising.
Currently, the national committees can use only 40 percent in soft money for issue advocacy. State limits vary from state to state.
The political parties argue that the limits violate their First Amendment rights. The courts are expected to act on the cases before the November election. (Story, p. 1112)
Until then, what the third-party organizations produce will be the main focus for issue ads. Candidates remain convinced that the spots affected the outcomes of several races, including the race for the White House, in 1996. They are awaiting the much-anticipated barrage in 1998.
In the 1996 presidential race, hot-button issues such as the minimum wage and Medicare, the performance of the first Republican Congress in 40 years and the possibility of majority change in the House attracted scores of issue ads. (1996 Almanac, p.11-3)
This year's relative quiet could be a result of the non-presidential election year and few headline-grabbing issues in Congress.
The launch of the Sierra Club's two-month issue ad campaign coincided with Earth Day, on April 22. The spots thanked or chastised seven incumbents for their voting records on environmental issues.
Ads praising Rep. Constance A. Morella, R-Md., for her support of clean air legislation are appearing on cable television in the Maryland suburbs near Washington.
The ads have a local touch, focusing on an asthmatic child who cannot play outdoors when the air quality is poor. The ad praises Morella's support for clean air legislation and provides her district office phone number so that voters may call to urge her to continue backing the measures.
In Albany, N.Y., radio ads take Republican Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato to task for votes critics said would allow toxins to pollute the Hudson River.
The Sierra Club also will mail fliers with an attached postcard to be sent to incumbents urging them to "start voting to protect the environment."
The series of positive ads will be run in the districts of Rep. Lane Evans, D-Ill., and freshman Rep. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. The "thank-you" ads also will run in Seattle, in the home state of Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, who is considered vulnerable.
The negative ads, which will assail incumbents for Washington votes that had a detrimental local environmental impact, will run in the Wisconsin 1st District of Republican Rep. Mark W. Neumann, who is seeking the Senate seat, and in Denver, where Colorado Republican Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell is seeking re-election.
"This is a curtain-raiser," said Daniel J. Weiss, Sierra Club political director. "It's designed to kick off the debate."
Americans for Limited Terms began running 30-second television spots in Pennsylvania's 19th District on April 29 assailing 12-term Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., as a career politician. It has tentatively come up with television spots for Oregon's 2nd District that would urge voters to persuade Greg Walden to back term limits to get "in step with the will of the people of Oregon." (Oregon preview, p. 1136; Pennsylvania preview p. 1134)
In New Jersey, freshman Republican Rep. Michael Pappas of the 12th District is a potential target because of his strident opposition to term limits. He believes his best response is to promote his record in Congress on a balanced budget, Medicare and taxes, and hope it drowns out the din.
"I encourage and welcome people to participate in the great experiment called democracy," he said. "Everyone certainly has a right to their opinion."
The power of the third-party groups has been evident in South Carolina's 4th District, where the term limits organizations made it clear from the start that they would push all candidates to sign the pledge, particularly front-running Republican state Sen. Mike Fair. The incumbent, Republican Rep. Bob Inglis, is running for the Senate.
"If Fair doesn't sign, we'll be there in force," said Eric O'Keefe, president of Americans for Limited Terms. "We want the district to have a legacy of limited" service.
Fair signed, and Americans for Limited Terms has sets its sights elsewhere, including open seats in Oregon's 1st District, Mississippi's 4th and California's 3rd.
The group is also waiting to see if Democratic Rep. Ted Strickland, who faces a tough challenge to retain the Ohio 6th District seat, will sign the pledge.
Americans for Limited Terms and U.S. Term Limits are close allies, sharing the same pledge and goals. But the main focus of Americans for Limited Terms is issue advocacy, while U.S. Term Limits has devoted much of its work to ballot initiatives on the state level, including measures that Mississippi and Nebraska voters may decide on next year.
U.S. Term Limits, which hopes to spend $500,000 for issue advocacy, likely will target Oregon's 1st, but of particular concern to the group is the 2000 elections and whether Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Wash., will stand by his pledge of three terms.
In 1994, Nethercutt was the poster child for term limits, knocking off House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash., who stridently opposed term limits. If Nethercutt backs down -- and there have been hints that he is reconsidering his promise -- the term limit group will make him target No. 1.
"We'll let every man, woman and child know he broke his pledge," said Paul Jacob, executive director of U.S. Term Limits.
Need To Respond
Often in issue advocacy, when one third-party group begins running ads, others feel compelled to respond.
It happened earlier this year in California's 22nd District when Gary Bauer's Campaign for Working Families used independent expenditures for ads on behalf of conservative Republican Tom Bordonaro, who opposes abortion. That prompted the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL) and other groups to respond. (CQ Weekly, p. 687, 137)
"The ingredients in that race were shaped by Gary Bauer with his attacks on Lois Capps," said Kate Michelman, president of NARAL. "We could not allow that to go unchallenged. We had to jump in to change the conversation."
Although organized labor is planning to run issue advocacy ads again this year, the strategy will likely be different from the last election cycle, when they began running ads as early as April 1995.
AFL-CIO officials say their focus will be less on issue advocacy advertising and more on grass-roots organizing and "get out the vote" efforts.
The result: Business has felt no imperative to respond, and various organizations within that community have encountered fundraising problems since labor is out of sight, out of mind.
Howard Kennedy, general manager at KMTV in Omaha, Neb., recalled receiving numerous ad buys from labor and the term limits groups in 1996. This year, despite a highly competitive gubernatorial race, a tough contest in the Omaha-based 2nd District and an early primary on May 12, the requests for television time from outside organizations have been non-existent.
"To date, we've seen nothing," Kennedy said. "I heard a station in Wichita, Kan., may be getting some tobacco ads. I haven't seen a dime."
The relatively silent airwaves come as a surprise to many, who believe the the stakes and money are too high for it to last.
Control of the statehouses, legislatures and Congress during the next census and the next round of redistricting could make one political party golden for years to come. And the tendency of organizations to spend what they raise cannot be discounted.
"It's a little early," said Ellen Miller, who heads the nonpartisan reform group Public Campaign. "We have to wait and see whether issue ads become the phenomenon people predicted it would be."
Business leaders remain convinced that labor's noticeable absence from the airwaves is due to a preoccupation with its uphill fight against a California ballot initiative that would require unions to get workers' consent before using dues for political purposes. The vote is scheduled for June 2.
Labor officials disagree, saying money spent on the initiative is separate from what has been earmarked for election 1998 and the bulk of labor money and action on the initiative is coming from California organizations, not the national group.
Nevertheless, business is ensuring that labor remains back on its heels. The Coalition is paying the legal costs for proponents of the initiative, and the nonprofit think tank, Americans for Tax Reform is pushing for the measure.
But the lack of labor ads also may be due in part to divisions among leaders about the ideal strategy.
Some believe labor can be effective with ads early on in which there is little or no competition and they can define the issue. Others favor waiting until a period closer to the election when voters will be more focused on issues.
The one thing labor will not repeat from 1996 is a high-profile news conference boasting about the amount of money it plans to spend.
Peggy Taylor, legislative director for the AFL-CIO, said that highly publicized session gave the impression that labor was spending the most money on issue advocacy when analyses by various groups, including the Center for Responsive Politics, concluded that business outspent labor by an 11-1 ratio in the last election cycle.
"Why set yourself up for that kind of misunderstanding?" she said.
Labor plans to spend $28 million, but while it will do issue advocacy advertising, its main focus will be grass-roots work and get-out-the-vote efforts with 300 field coordinators, voter guides and informational material on lawmakers' records.
It has focused on about 30 House races and targeted House Republicans such as Helen Chenoweth of Idaho, Bill Redmond of New Mexico, and Robert B. Aderholt of Alabama. Labor also will be trying to help vulnerable Democratic incumbents, including Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii, Evans of Illinois, and Strickland of Ohio.
But labor has indicated it will pass on the races of Republicans such as Rep. Phil English of Pennsylvania, who has backed its congressional agenda, including opposition to giving the president "fast track" trading authority.
AFL-CIO President John Sweeney has said labor supports lawmakers who back their agenda for working families, regardless of party identification.
Leaders from three organizations -- The Coalition, the Business Roundtable and American Insurance Association -- had discussed creating one large pot of cash for issue advocacy, but they discovered that their goals did not mesh.
The Coalition's purpose is to respond to labor, while Robert Vagley of the American Insurance Association wanted to promote business issues. Rank-and-file Roundtable members, meanwhile, worried about incurring the wrath of the unions at many of their companies.
The outcome was for the three groups to go their separate ways, although there have been efforts, so far unsuccessful, to meet and map out a strategy for 1998.
In the meantime, the three groups are weighing their issue ad campaigns and competing for many of the same dollars. They are finding that labor's absence is affecting their fundraising.
In 1996, the Coalition of more than 30 business groups and trade associations, including the Chamber, the National Restaurant Association and the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors, raised $5 million, made 71 television and radio buys in 37 congressional districts and mailed out 2 million report cards on members of Congress.
But the group came under criticism from some Republicans for not responding quickly enough. This year, its goal is to raise more than $5 million, and the various member business groups have been making their financial pleas to various companies.
"Today, the 105th Congress is a pro-business Congress, but only by the narrowest of margins," said one fundraising letter from the National Association of Wholesale Distributors. "A handful of new anti-business members would shift the balance and we would face legislation of the kind we have not had to defend ourselves against for the last three years."
Greg Kubiak, campaign finance expert and political writer at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said business wants to avoid a repeat of 1996.
"The business community did learn a lesson. They don't want to be caught in the position they were in the last time around," Kubiak said. "There's a fairly strong market to build resources, [to build] a war chest."
But the demands are many for business dollars with the Coalition, the newly formed Americans for Job Security soliciting money along with increased Business Roundtable dues and Majority '98, a fundraising effort by Republican Congressional leaders that seeks $100,000 from each company.
Searching For Issues
One reason for the lack of early advertising by business and labor may be the absence of the kinds of issues that roused the electorate in 1996, such as an increase in the minimum wage, changes in Medicare, cuts in spending on education and the environment, and even the issue ad spending itself.
The AFL-CIO waged a $35 million effort against 74 House incumbents, predominantly freshmen Republicans in politically competitive districts. Business felt compelled to answer labor's charges.
"It's a waste to go on the air now," the AFL-CIO's Taylor said. "Issues are not hot enough."
Said Grover Norquist, president of the Americans for Tax Reform, which produced its share of ads in 1996: "It's hard for either team to go to their base and say you should be scared."
A tobacco settlement or absence of one, taxes and patients' rights legislation have the potential to be the next subjects of issue ads.
The Christian Coalition recently launched a $300,000 campaign of radio ads, direct mail and phone banks in the districts and home states of congressional leaders attacking the marriage tax penalty as unfair to working couples.
But at this stage, the numbers fail to match the millions of dollars that were spent on issue ads two years ago.
Since campaign finance rules on disclosure do not apply to issue advocacy advertising, there have only been estimates as to how much has been spent.
In a September 1997 review of issue advocacy, The Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania estimated that $135 million to $150 million was spent by more than two dozen groups. The figures were based on media stories and self-reporting by the groups.
Donald J. Simon, general counsel at the public interest group, Common Cause, complained that without disclosure requirements, neither the candidates nor the voters know who the groups are that are skewing the discussion.
But the organizations answer the criticism of reformers and candidates with the argument that they have a right to raise the issues.
"There's a fundamental misconception about what American politics is all about," Jacob said. "If politicians get to control the campaign, these issues won't be talked about."
Another observer, Baran, emphasized, "The history of American politics is issue politics."
Still, the candidates complain loudly. In 1996, Nebraska Republican Chuck Hagel was convinced that negative advertising would be a strategic mistake against popular Democratic Gov. Ben Nelson in their race for a Senate seat.
So when the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, D'Amato of New York, wanted to weigh in with issue ads aimed at Nelson, Hagel said no thanks.
"My strategy was not to do that. I didn't want to beat him over the head. He had a 78 percent approval rating," Hagel recalled. "I told D'Amato, 'Keep your money.'"
Hagel knew all too well how issue ads could upend any campaign strategy. Earlier in the year, in his quest for the GOP nomination, he suddenly found himself the target of U.S. Term Limits, which used radio ads to criticize Hagel for failing to sign their pledge of two terms in the Senate.
The ads left the Hagel campaign scrambling. They pleaded with radio stations not to air them, arguing that Hagel supported term limits but was not ready to sign the pledge. Hagel eventually defused the crisis and defeated Nelson.
Candidates often have no inkling of when the ads will hit, said Maine's Allen. "I remember the sensation we'd have when the press called and said, 'Have you seen the new ad?' You panic about the ads that purport to favor you as you do about the ads that oppose you because you have no control," he said.
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