'Super PAC' stepping into regional races

The American Future Fund is buying TV time to attack Democrats, including N.J.'s John Adler.

Posted: September 26, 2010

A curtain is pulled back to reveal a squinting, cranky-looking U.S. Rep. John Adler as a female voice speaks gravely of betrayal.

"Washington liberals like John Adler are trying to trick you," the woman warns.

The cable-television ad, intended to thwart the reelection of the freshman Democrat in New Jersey's contentious Third District race, is paid for by the well-heeled American Future Fund.

The conservative advocacy group, based in Des Moines, Iowa, has paid for commercials attacking Democrats in more than a dozen congressional races, including contests in South Carolina, Michigan, Indiana, California, and West Virginia. And it's just warming up.

With about five weeks to go before the Nov. 2 election, the nonprofit AFF has $25 million to spend on ads that advance its positions and take aim at candidates who oppose its views, spokesman Nicholas Ryan said.

The group has taken stands against construction of a Lower Manhattan mosque near ground zero, against the health-care overhaul, and in favor of cuts in government spending.

The AFF has reported spending $3.6 million on candidate-based ads so far, according to the Federal Election Commission.

"When you have a very competitive environment offering folks in districts real differing views on issues, we intend to go into those places and help shape the issues' debate," Ryan said in an interview.

The group chose the battle between Adler and Republican Jon Runyan, he said, because of the candidates' "divergent views on the major issues - health care, spending, debt, how to tackle unemployment."

"This does shape up as a very robust issues debate," said Ryan, whose group has not overtly endorsed Runyan.

Despite the AFF's apparent approval of him, Runyan - like Adler - has planted himself firmly in the middle of the road to swing the district, which spans Burlington and Ocean Counties and includes Cherry Hill in Camden County.

The AFF is not yet involved in Pennsylvania, where there are competitive House races and a hot Senate race between Republican Pat Toomey and U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak, a Democrat. It has donated $2,000 to Toomey via a small political action committee, however, according to the FEC.

Not even those who benefit from the AFF's largesse can pull back the curtain on the group's donors. It is organized under the federal tax code as a 501(c)(4) independent expenditure group. As such, it is exempt from having to disclose its donors and prohibited from coordinating with candidate campaigns.

To analysts who follow campaign spending, such groups are known as "super PACs" for their ability to spend millions to influence elections without revealing the source of their funding.

"We'll know they're spending the money, but not who is fueling the expenditures. Herein lies the transparency conundrum of this election cycle," said Dave Levinthal, communications director for the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that studies the influence of money on politics.

"Until that changes," Levinthal said, "people need to be extremely vigilant about the messages they're hearing on radio and seeing on television."

If voters can't answer the question "Why are they urging me to vote one way or another?" they need to be skeptical, he said.

Super PACs have risen in prominence this election cycle thanks to a pair of U.S. Supreme Court decisions. Corporations, unions, and other special-interest groups may now spend unlimited amounts on political ads. They can contribute to certain types of nonprofits, such as the AFF, without fear of being unmasked.

Republicans in the Senate blocked a bill Thursday that would have required the disclosure of donors to independent expenditure groups.

So far, Republican-leaning independent expenditure groups have outspent those with Democratic leanings. They appear to be making up for official Republican Party and candidate spending deficits, according to an analysis by Bloomberg News.

In the Third District, Adler has four times more money on hand than Runyan to mount his campaign, according to the most recent disclosure reports. The New Jersey State Democratic Committee also has mailed brochures to voters attacking Runyan.

Runyan's campaign declined to comment Friday about the AFF's ad and whether donors to such groups should be revealed.

Contributors to the AFF have a "protected right" to remain anonymous, noted Ryan, who declined to say whether the group's funding was from corporations, individuals, or a mix.

So Adler and other candidates may never know who or what has attacked them.

The AFF provides like-minded people the opportunity to "band together their money," Ryan said. "It gives them a unique venue and opportunity to do that for the issues they care about."

The ad targeting Adler is thematically similar to Runyan's own television spots. Both portray Adler as the liberal puppet of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.).

The AFF ad, though, is more harsh. It strongly implies Adler voted for President Obama's health-care overhaul, which he did not.

Adler did, however, oppose a tax bill that had a health-care proposal attached to it. Voting against the bill preserved an element of the Obama plan that stipulated that individuals who can afford health insurance and don't receive it through an employer must purchase it themselves or pay a small fine.

Adler has said that while he favored overhauling health care, he had voted against Obama's larger plan because it would do little to cut costs.

"It is a shame that an out-of-state, extreme right-wing group is taking a minor procedural vote and claiming that John Adler has not been consistently opposed to the health-care bill," the Democrat's campaign said of the AFF ad.

Adler is in favor of requiring disclosure of donors to independent expenditure groups. "We cannot tolerate special interests flooding the airwaves with anonymous attack ads," he said in a statement.

AFF has spent $170,000 to run the Adler spot and may allocate more, Ryan said.

The group did not come into New Jersey because of local requests or recommendations, he said. It decided on its own that the Adler-Runyan race merited attention. Political analysts have said Republicans were likely to pick up seats this November, maybe even enough to take control of the House.

The AFF was formed in 2007, but did not become a major player until the current campaigns. In April, it ran advertisements attacking a South Carolina lawyer - a Republican - because a deal he had brokered to bring a Boeing Co. plant to Charleston involved "corporate welfare" in the form of government help. The ad did not run in areas that might benefit economically by the factory.

When the ad ran, the lawyer - conservative Leighton Lord - was in the midst of an unsuccessful campaign to become his party's candidate for state attorney general.

The AFF's ad helped him, Lord said, because he had not drawn attention to his role in the deal, which brought 5,000 jobs to the Charleston area.

"We knew from polling data that 85 percent of the state was in favor of Boeing. It was a slam dunk," Lord said.

Though Lord couldn't figure out who AFF's backers were, he did learn one thing: "They've got a lot of money."

Contact staff writer Cynthia Burton at 856-779-3858 or cburton@phillynews.com.

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