Six months after an election where the controversial liberal group became a partisan lightning rod, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now remains a prominent GOP target, a subject of intense, feverish pursuit seemingly out of proportion with the return on political investment.
Consider the past week alone.
In the House, Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) and other GOP lawmakers called on the Census Bureau to sever ties with ACORN, one of several hundred organizations teaming up with the bureau to conduct the crucial Census count in 2010.
At the same time, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), one of ACORN’s most vocal opponents in Congress, tangled with Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) over an “ACORN amendment” she introduced that would have prohibited any organization indicted for voter fraud from receiving certain federal housing grants.
In the Senate, Republican David Vitter of Louisiana introduced his own amendment that sought to prohibit ACORN from receiving federal volunteer funds through the National Service Act. The Senate rejected it on Thursday.
Outside the legislative arena, Republicans also zeroed in on ACORN.
The Republican National Committee splashed on its home page a story about voter registration charges filed against ACORN in Nevada. The Florida GOP produced a YouTube video aimed at freshman Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson that shows a member of Grayson’s staff calling him the “Congressman from ACORN.”
On Friday, Americans for Limited Government, a conservative group, targeted several vulnerable Democratic freshmen by issuing individualized press releases slamming them for voting to fund “criminal enterprise ACORN.”
The list goes on and on.
At the heart of the GOP’s grievance is the belief that ACORN is a shady liberal front group that regularly engages in fraudulent voter registration activity or outright voter fraud. John McCain suggested as much in one of his debates with Barack Obama when he referred to ACORN by name and accused Obama of not fully explaining his association with the group.
“This could violate the most fundamental aspect of democracy and that is a free and fair election,” McCain said at the debate last October.
Indeed, ACORN has continually run afoul of the law in recent years. Most recently, in Nevada law enforcement officials charged the group with voter registration fraud on Monday, accusing ACORN of illegally setting quotas for its canvassers and paying employees bonuses for signing up more than 21 new voters per day.
And in Pennsylvania on Thursday, authorities charged seven ACORN workers with falsifying voter registration forms – six of those employees face felony counts.
ACORN officials insist that these were isolated incidents that run contrary to the group’s stated policy prohibiting registration quotas and the completion of fraudulent forms. But last year the group gained unwanted attention as reports of registration irregularities began cropping up in several battleground states and after local elections officials complained of being inundated with new voter registration forms, many of which turned out to be either duplicates or false. ACORN officials were quick to point out then – as they do now – that voter registration fraud rarely leads to voter fraud.
But ACORN’s past problems and its new partnership with the Census Bureau has given Republicans more than enough reason to pounce. During the debate over the government stimulus package, GOP lawmakers complained bitterly that federal funds for “neighborhood stabilization activities” and other programs could flow to ACORN. At the time, ACORN&rsqo;s CEO, Bertha Lewis, denied that her group would be eligible to receive such funds.
In an interview with POLITICO, McHenry said that after this week’s law enforcement action in Nevada and Pennsylvania, he would continue to press the Census Bureau to end its partnership with ACORN.
“Not only are we talking about an organization that is a nonprofit and engaged in political activity of a partisan nature, not only are we talking about a group that gets government funds, we’re talking about an organization that has an imprint and stamp of a partnership with the Census,” McHenry said. “I think reasonable folks on both sides of the aisle should be concerned about ACORN’s involvement.”
Bachmann, the Minnesota Republican, explained that her ACORN amendment to the Mortgage Reform and Anti-Predatory Lending Act was an attempt to prevent Congress from squandering taxpayer dollars by letting money reach “organizations that are repeatedly under the cloud of suspicion of public criminal indictment.”
Bachmann has repeatedly criticized Democrats for refusing to push for congressional investigations into the group’s practices and suggested that lawmakers from the other party were beholden to ACORN.
“Even as dozens of criminal charges were leveled against ACORN and its employers in Nevada and Pennsylvania,” Bachmann said, “the Democrats continued to bend over backwards to keep millions in tax dollars flowing into their coffers.”
Democratic silence over the issue, said Republican strategist Alex Conant, a former RNC spokesman, has served to fuel the controversy.
“To the extent that Democrats don’t want to discuss ACORN only raises Republican suspicions that there’s something to discuss,” Conant said.
Democrats dismiss the attacks on ACORN as symptomatic of a larger problem within the GOP, namely the party's struggle to find its voice in the months following the bruising electoral losses of last November.
"It’d probably better serve the Republican Party if they spent more time fixated on coming up with new ideas on how to get the economy back on track,” said Democratic National Committee spokesman Hari Sevugan. “It’s because they are flailing around with anything but new ideas that their popularity continues to plummet.”
But some Republican strategists go so far as to argue that GOP lawmakers have not been aggressive enough in their efforts to shine a spotlight on ACORN’s activities and keep up the pressure on Democrats to disavow the group. These insiders see the controversy as an issue that resonates with the party’s base and plays well on conservative news outlets and talk radio.
“Don’t people care if there’s an organization that’s involved in illegal activity?” said Heather Heidelbaugh, a Republican lawyer based in Pittsburgh and a key player in the GOP’s full court press against the group.
Heidelbaugh sought an injunction against ACORN in Pennsylvania in the run-up to the 2008 election and raised concerns about the group in testimony before a House Judiciary subcommittee in March. She said that the criticism of ACORN should not be a one-party issue.
“The reason why members of my party are upset is because ACORN exemplifies what all Americans should be concerned about -- an organization that is not being honest with the American people about its true aims and goals and that violates existing laws,” Heidelbaugh said.
ACORN officials, who have found themselves on the defensive since last fall, deny the GOP charges and point to political motives behind the sharp criticism. A spokesman for the group, Scott Levenson, said that ACORN has been unfairly singled out by Republicans who have not given the organization enough credit for the work it does, primarily in low- and moderate-income areas.
“I’ve alays believed that ACORN was the Willie Horton of 2008, and to a large extent this fear of the bogeyman is what Republicans believe is their answer to the midterm elections,” Levenson said. “ACORN is an easy target.”