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Soft money's swift hits on rise

With little accountability, special interest groups are raising huge sums to torpedo or boost political campaigns.

Published September 25, 2006

Political scientists call it "swift boating."

The term derives from "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth," an independent group that spent millions on television ads that questioned the military record of 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry when he served in Vietnam.

It also describes the speed and agility with which interest groups - following the Swift Boat Veterans' lead - increasingly are bypassing the political parties in favor of direct media buys to bolster or condemn a candidate or ballot issue.

And this year, with no presidential election to distract them, the groups have navigated deep into the most local of legislative and even county and city commission races. In Florida, they've raised more than $23-million this election cycle and spent more than $17-million on state and local races and issues, $14-million in the four weeks leading up to the Sept. 5 primary.

In comparison, the groups raised and spent about $2-million in the four weeks leading up to the 2004 primary, though there wasn't a governor's race that year and spending accelerated in the weeks before the general election. Figures for the entire 2004 election cycle aren't available, because media reporting requirements didn't take effect until July of that year.

The volume of money involved this year dismays Ben Wilcox but doesn't surprise him.

"They are becoming a much more popular vehicle for fundraising and for advertising, and unfortunately much of it is negative," said Wilcox, executive director of Common Cause Florida, a government and campaign finance watchdog group.

"Now it's almost like they're a third candidate in the race," Wilcox said.

Overnight, groups with happy-sounding names like "Florida's Working Families," "Let's Leave the World a Better Place Because We Were Here" and "Citizens for Balanced Growth" have registered with the state, raised millions of dollars and produced and aired television commercials or sent out fliers or triggered automated phone calls explaining why one candidate is a saint or another a sinner.

They're called "electioneering communications organizations," or ECOs, and they differ from other groups like political action committees and committees of continuous existence in that they don't contribute directly to candidates.

But they can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money on television and radio commercials and fliers that glorify or pillory a candidate, as long as they don't expressly say "vote for" or "vote against" the person. Anything else is fair game.

The groups' small size (relative to the political parties), portability (they often exchange huge sums of money with other groups to shield their contributors) and autonomy (they answer to no candidate or party) afford them major maneuverability in the political landscape.

"There's more of a Wild West feel to it now," Wilcox said.

Critics say their activity may be called "swift boating," but in today's military lingo a better phrase might be "shock and awe."

* * *

Early last month, South Florida voters opened their mailboxes and pulled out a flier that showed a bombing scene next to Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Jim Davis' picture. The ad, underwritten by a group called Florida's Working Families but backed by the U.S. Sugar company, called on Davis to explain why he was not in Washington, D.C., on July 20, when Congress approved a resolution condemning Hezbollah for attacks on Israel. Davis said he missed the vote because he was meeting with a newspaper editorial board. Davis' opponent, state Sen. Rod Smith, denied involvement with the ads.

A follow-up commercial further pounded Davis for missed votes, and a radio ad blasted him for his failure to vote to compensate two African American men who were wrongly imprisoned. All were paid for by a U.S. Sugar-backed group, and when Davis won the Democratic gubernatorial primary, his camp declared victory over "a $5-million smear campaign funded by special interests."

On-the-side campaign financing by interest groups is nothing new. Corporate, union, and other interests have always and still do pour millions of dollars into elections, largely via the political parties because of stringent limits on how much can be given directly to any individual candidate - $500.

But in recent years newer, sleeker models for raising money and buying influence have come into vogue. One of the newest - and most convenient - tools in the political arsenal is the ECO. Congress approved the category as part of the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill, and use of the groups exploded during the 2004 election.

In fact, their success at the federal level is why they are becoming more involved in state races such as gubernatorial and legislative campaigns, said Jeff Berry, an expert in interest group politics at Tufts University. And just because there's no presidential election this year doesn't mean the groups won't try and sway other levels of government in their favor, he said.

"Campaign money, like water, will flow to where there's low-lying ground," Berry said.

In Florida, the money has flowed not just to the governor's race but to state House and Senate races and even to some county commission races. Three other states - California, New York and Illinois - also have seen a surge in similar soft money spent on state races and issues this year, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Responsive Politics,, nonpartisan organization that tracks money in politics.

Florida ECOs are required by state law to report where they get their money and how they spend it - but not in which district nor for which candidate. Following the money is a piecemeal process of collecting fliers and watching for ads, then noting the name of the group that paid for them and looking up their reports.

In the Tampa Bay area, ECOs paid for fliers in one of the most hotly contested primaries of the year - the battle between state representatives Kim Berfield and Frank Farkas for Senate District 16. Berfield won, with the help of anti-Farkas mailings paid for by the Florida Mainstreet Merchants, a group controlled by the Florida Retail Federation, and People for a Better Florida, a group backed by the Florida Medical Association and individual physicians. Meanwhile, ElectionWatch told Tampa Bay Republicans that Berfield presses the vote buttons of other House members to get her bills passed.

Altogether, Florida Mainstreet Merchants spent almost $29,000 on the Berfield/Farkas race. Also in the bay area, the Florida Mainstreet Merchants spent $8,000 this year on mailings and a survey in state House District 47, currently held by Kevin Ambler, who is unopposed for re-election.

Florida Mainstreet Merchants spokesman Rick McAllister did not return phone calls.

In Miami, several ECOs, including the Partnership for Florida's Future, a Florida Chamber of Commerce-backed group, and the Florida Mainstreet Merchants, poured money into the bitter race for Senate District 38. That's where Republican Sen. Alex Villalobos was struggling to hold on to his seat despite Republican Party support for his opponent in the primary. Villalobos won.

And in Leon County, a group called Citizens for Balanced Growth paid for polls and photos for Tallahassee City Commission races.

Unlike political parties, ECO groups don't have long-standing ties to communities and aren't accountable to grass roots members, so they don't have to worry about offending a base if their political ads get too ugly. And they give candidates an arms-length ability to deny involvement in the ads even if they knew about them. That's problematic, according to critics.

"The idea that an organization can come in relatively quickly, attack a candidate and then disperse, that certainly runs against the grain of accountability," Berry said.

While it's not easy to track ECOs' contributions and expenditures, it's easier than it was before 2004, when state lawmakers passed a law requiring the groups to disclose their contributions and expenditures. And what the groups spend now is at least quantifiable and identifiable before the election, said Senate President Tom Lee, who led the charge for more transparency for state ECOs. Before the state law, the public might find out who was behind an attack, but often not until after the election.

"The bill certainly seems to have gone a long way in meeting it's goal," Lee said. That goal, he said, was "to let the public see the man behind the curtain."

[Last modified September 25, 2006, 00:36:14]

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