Fueling the Fire

Activist ads fill TV stations' coffers

Big money is moving in from the left. MoveOn.org, George Soros' America Coming Together, and a dozen other organizations are pumping hundreds of millions into a drive to defeat President Bush. And a new ruling by election regulators ensures the money keeps rolling in.

And they'll need it. Bush lobbed his first ad grenade after Super Tuesday. Now Sen. John Kerry is getting ready for his closeup, aided by his new best friends, liberal groups that replace the unregulated "soft money," the rocket fuel of political survival, banned by campaign-finance-reform laws.

They're also a blessing for TV stations. Nonprofit generosity could boost TV ad spending as high as $1.6 billion—a record amount.

The GOP tried to turn off the liberal-money spigot, but the Federal Election Commission defeated its blatant bid to kill competitor contributions. The best news for Dems: Contributors are stepping up the check-writing pace.

"The FEC validated the groups. That's good for Democrats and even better for broadcasters," says Sanford Bernstein media analyst Tom Wolzien. So is the fact the Democrats settled on a candidate.

Liberal groups have also used their financial muscle to pay for attack ads on candidates they oppose—as Howard Dean learned when party stalwarts went after his maverick presidential bid in Iowa and New Hampshire.

MoveOn.org, a group formed to fight President Clinton's impeachment, says it has raised $10 million. Americans Coming Together has pledges of $55 million from union, environmental, and abortion-rights groups. The Media Fund, led by former Clinton aide Harold Ickes, promises to raise $95 million. That money is reserved exclusively for attacks on Bush.

The rise of these organizations can be traced, in part, to what Republicans charge is a loophole in the 2002 campaign-reform law. Political parties can pull in only "hard money," $2,000 donations from individuals and businesses. Hard money has always been the Republicans' strong suit, pushing the Bush campaign treasury to more than $100 million; the Democrats can't match that.

"The only way Democrats can defeat Bush is if activist groups step in," says Ken Goldstein, a former CBS election researcher and head of the Advertising Project at the University of Wisconsin.

With the groups' fundraising and advertising rights safeguarded, Goldstein predicts that millions in liberal pledges will soon be honored. On the flip side, Republicans will jump-start their nonprofit efforts, too. So far, the most successful Republican-leaning nonprofit, the Club for Growth, ranks 10th
among the top 12 activist fundraisers.

Extremely wealthy donors, at least liberal ones, are writing checks to nonprofits that don't limited the amount of money they can raise or spend on political ads. To date, the most successful are pro-Democrat. The soft-money machine Bill Clinton built just moved its patronage from the party to nonprofits.

And despite Republican gripes, MoveOn.org President Wes Boyd says activist fundraising is a bonus for free speech. Of the $10 million his group claims to have raised from 160,000 contributors, the average donation has been less than $60.

"This sort of authentic, grassroots fundraising is consistent with campaign-finance reform," says Boyd, "which was to weaken the connection between special-interest giving and quid pro quo appointments and other rewards for which the Bush Administration is famous."

MoveOn has generated most of its cash from a Web-based fundraising effort. It grabbed the spotlight when CBS refused to air its anti-Bush ad during the Super Bowl. And that's just an opening salvo. "The real money," says Goldstein, "will pour in this summer."