In a web video emailed to supporters Thursday, Barack Obama explained that he was opting out of the public financing system because John McCain is “not going to stop the smears and attacks from his allies running so-called 527 groups who will spend millions and millions of dollars in unlimited donations.”
Republicans can only wish that were the case.
Obama’s alarmist prophecy — a bit of typical campaign rhetoric meant to scare his own donors into reaching for their credit cards — is wildly at odds with the flatlined state of conservative third-party efforts.
The truth is that, less than five months before Election Day, there are no serious anti-Obama 527s in existence nor are there any immediate plans to create such a group.
Conversations with more than a dozen Republican strategists find near unanimity in the belief that, at some point, there will be a real third-party effort aimed at Obama.
But not one knows who will run it, who will pay for it, what shape it will eventually take or when such a group may form.
More worrisome for Republicans who believe such an outside attack apparatus is essential to defeating Obama, some key individuals and groups who were being looked to for help say they won’t be involved.
T. Boone Pickens, the Texas oilman who gave $3 million to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and who numerous GOP sources said was being looked to as a funding source this year, is sitting the race out.
“He is not giving anything to 527s involved in the presidential race this cycle, and has communicated that…to Republican strategists and operatives,” said Pickens spokesman Jay Rosser.
Rosser said Pickens “has a much broader public policy initiative in mind that will focus on energy, and is approaching that in a bipartisan manner.” He only “contributed last cycle because they were in play, and were so heavily funded on the other side.”
Also staying out of the third-party effort this time is the powerful Republican public affairs firm, the DCI Group.
DCI ran the independent Progress for America (PFA) campaign that raised $45 million to tout George W. Bush and tar John Kerry in 2004.
But after helping to underwrite ad campaigns for Bush’s second term effort to privatize Social Security and confirm two Supreme Court justices, PFA has become defunct.
Now, DCI officials emphatically want it to be known—and specifically asked that it be included in this story—that they won’t resurrect PFA or be involved at all in this campaign.
“DCI Group is not and will not be involved in any 527 activity this cycle,” said a spokesman for the group, which has a bevy of image-sensitive corporate clients. “DCI is out of the business.”
Further, Freedom’s Watch, the one third-party group that many conservatives expected to step into the void left by PFA, has decided to exclusively focus on congressional battles.
Asked if was still the intent of Freedom’s Watch to stay out of the presidential fray, Carl Forti, the group’s director, flatly said: “Yes.”
A spokesman for Sheldon Adelson, the chief financial patron of Freedom’s Watch, declined to comment when asked if the Las Vegas casino mogul would help finance other third-party groups targeting the presidential race.
Multiple Republican sources say that Karl Rove has been in contact with donors such as Adelson and Pickens about helping to create an independent effort but that to date nothing has come of it. Rove didn’t respond to an email.
“There has to be a group and there will be a group,” said a GOP strategist who has been closely involved in past third-party efforts. “But when and where it is formed is yet to be determined. And we’re running out of time, the clock’s ticking.”
Another veteran Republican who works closely with outside conservatve groups is even more blunt: “[Democrats] think another Swift Boat is coming – and it’s not.”
The situation was far different this time four years ago.
The Swift Boat Veterans were unveiled at National Press Club event on May 4 that year. By late June, PFA was not only up and running but had launched ads in some key states. And a handful of well-funded Democratic third-party groups had already spent tens of millions of dollars at that point hammering Bush and the GOP.
The reasons for inactivity on the right are many: tougher FEC regulations that make it more difficult to launch attacks that aren’t tied to an issue, donor fatigue, lack of enthusiasm among Republicans for McCain, and a fear from both contributors and operatives of being painted as a racist in the first general election campaign in history that features an African American as a major party nominee.
But, in explaining the absence of any anti-Obama groups this time around, every individual interviewed for this story cited the same central reason: a fear that their party’s nominee will publicly denounce them and hold a grudge.
“Both donors and operatives know how much [McCain] abhors these groups,” said John Weaver, the Arizona senator’s former chief strategist, referring to the independent groups that have thrived following passage of the landmark McCain-Feingold campaign finance law. “If he is ultimately successful and any of these groups played a significant effort in electing him, many believe, probably rightfully, that they would be ostracized.”
Another GOP strategist said that McCain’s denunciation of a 501(c)(4) which aired an ad in South Carolina last November touting McCain when his resources were severely limited sent a chilling message to potential independent expenditure groups.
McCain issued a public statement at the time calling on the group, spearheaded by GOP adman Rick Reed, to “cease and desist.”
"Anyone who believes they could assist my campaign by exploiting a loophole in campaign finance laws is doing me and our country a disservice,” McCain said then.
He used even stronger language after that, saying at a Texas town hall meeting in late February that 527s “are distorting the entire political process and they need to be outlawed.”
Aping the voice of an imaginary donor, one Republican strategist posited: “I’m supposed to put millions of dollars up to be called a lawbreaker? That doesn’t make one feel very good.”
While Bush spoke out against third-party activity in 2004, it was widely understood in the Republican political community to have been done with a wink and a nod.
McCain, too, has eased somewhat off his harder line of late.
Since speaking out this spring against a North Carolina Republican Party ad that invoked Obama and his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and angering conservatives who see the use of such associations as imperative to winning in an otherwise tough year for the GOP, McCain has said that he won’t play the role of “referee” about every ad that is aired.
Told that party allies were hesitant to form groups out of fear that they’d never be able to do business with or even darken the door of a McCain White House, a top campaign adviser suggested that the candidate who rebuked the Swift Boat Veterans might not do the same this time when it’s his name on the ballot and there are similar third-party attacks being waged against him.
“He wishes that 527s did not exist on either side,” said McCain strategist Steve Schmidt. “But he understands that they do. And he certainly isn’t going to say that one side should have them and one side should not in the context of a presidential campaign.”
But that’s not enough reassurance for some longtime Republicans.
“People think that if they take the winkand nod and give the money that he will piss all over them like he pissed all over the lobbyists," said a Republican who has been involved in past third-party efforts.
Aside from fears about antagonizing McCain, there is palpable disappointment over the failure of Hillary Clinton to claim the Democratic nomination. Many in the GOP were gearing up for, and were energized by, the prospect of a run against Clinton.
Several Republicans, including the Vice-President’s daughter, Mary Cheney, talked about creating an independent group at the end of last year but the group fizzled out during the course of the long Democratic primary, sources say.
They weren’t alone.
Richard Collins, a wealthy Dallas-based entrepreneur, bankrolled “StopHerNow," an entity set up to defeat the former First Lady.
“For six months, it’s been do we stop her, stop him or stop somebody else?” he notes.
“We spent 18 months and millions of dollars making 'Hillary The Movie,'" laments David Bossie, head of Citizens United and a longtime Clinton tormentor. “We’re incredibly proud, but the problem is the film has no relevance anymore.”
Bossie is now rushing out an Obama movie for later this summer that he promises will include Wright and other controversial figures from the Democrat’s past. But while promising that they’ll also do TV spots, Bossie’s outfit faces the same challenges as other third-party groups hoping to engage in the race – a lack of money.
Citizens United had less than $1 million on hand at then of April.
Floyd Brown, another right-wing operative who has been thought to be planning an anti-Obama effort, has largely been relegated to broadcasting ads online and had less than $50,000 combined in two accounts at the end of March.
And Collins’s group only had raised only about $8,000 more than it spent this cycle as of March 30, according to a Center for Responsive Politics analysis.
Asked if they would air TV ads, Collins said, “We might.” Then he noted the cartoon-filled website they had mocking Obama. “We get a lot of hits on our internet site,” he said.
The diminished role of third-party groups this campaign isn’t confined to the right, though. Democratic-leaning groups have done far less so far this year than in 2004, when outfits such as the George Soros-funded America Coming Together and The Media Fund spent hundreds of millions of dollars attacking Bush.
The reasoning is the same: fear of being rebuked by their own candidate.
One liberal group, David Brock’s Progressive Media USA, declared in April that it would spend $40 million against McCain, but two months later, after Obama signaled his unease with outside help, they had stopped airing ads and were expected to be absorbed into a pair of other left-leaning organizations.
Still, that hasn’t stopped sympathizers such as MoveOn.org and the government employee union AFSCME from attacking McCain. The two groups joined together this week to air a hard-edged spot this week featuring an actress playing a young mother with an infant son in her lap telling McCain that he “can’t have [the baby]” for the Iraq war.
“527s are here to stay and they mean at least two to three points in the general,” said conservative public relations executive Greg Mueller, a veteran of past presidential campaigns. “Both sides need them – whether they like it or not.”