The Evolution of Campaign Finance?

Liberal groups have joined forces to amass cash and clout

Imagine a political organization with more than $250 million in the bank, a fine-tuned direct-mail operation, some of the best political minds in the country, and legions of volunteers at the ready. It might sound a lot like the Republican or Democratic machinery in a Presidential election year. But it isn't.

This group is America Votes, a confederacy of liberal causes that is mobilizing to fill the money void left by a new campaign-finance law that is hampering Democrats' fund-raising. It's the first big organization to emerge from the confusion left by the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (a.k.a. McCain-Feingold), which cut the flow of big-dollar "soft money" donations to parties. With a Presidential election bearing down, America Votes pulls together some 20 progressive interests in a kind of shadow party (table).

As the Supreme Court prepares to hear arguments Sept. 8 on BCRA's constitutionality, America Votes is the first evolutionary response to the law's fund-raising restrictions. And it might be the only way for Dems, who long have relied on now-banned donations from unions and wealthy givers, to stay in the game against the GOP's money vacuum, which sucks up thousands of still-legal smaller contributions. President George W. Bush and the Republican National Committee are on target to raise a record half-billion dollars before Election Day 2004.

Critics warn that America Votes and groups like it threaten to wrest control of electoral strategy from the parties, drive the message to the fringes of the Left and Right, and make it more difficult for Presidential nominees to run as centrists. Ultimately, these groups could represent an end run around BCRA if they become too cozy with the party machinery. "If somehow 'coordination' with the party becomes a wink and a nod, it would render our efforts really meaningless," says Senator Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), who sponsored reform legislation with Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.).

So far, the emerging system is an improvement. With politicians once-removed from fund-raising, they will spend less time groveling for money. Once elected, they'll be insulated from donors seeking favors. Disclosure rules will keep money flows visible. "The law is working even if it forces money to these soft-money groups, because it's breaking that connection" between donors and lawmakers, says Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics.

America Votes has the potential to replace the Democratic Party as the center of liberal efforts. It will be governed by a top-flight list of Democratic insiders. President Cecile Richards, daughter of former Texas Governor Ann Richards, is a former deputy chief of staff to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Founders include AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, and Gregory T. Moore, executive director of the NAACP National Voter Fund.

The goal is to turn out the vote in swing states such as New Mexico, Florida, Iowa, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and West Virginia. Member groups will share polling data, research, and mailing lists, including "Demzilla," the Democratic National Committee's massive voter data bank. They'll ante up $50,000 each to hire coordinators in as many as 17 states. "It doesn't make sense to be talking to the same voters and knocking on the same doors on the same evenings," Richards says.

America Votes will have help from a new political action committee, America Coming Together, which expects to raise $75 million by Election Day in pledges from wealthy donors. Among them: billionaire financier and Bush critic George Soros, who is kicking in $10 million because "the current set of reforms give an advantage to the Republicans." A $50 million media campaign to support the Democratic nominee, led by Harold Ickes, President Clinton's former deputy chief of staff, will complement ACT's ground war. Ickes isn't worried about a ban on coordinating with the party: "It doesn't take much to figure out what the issues are and the messages you need to be helpful."

But some critics wonder how helpful these groups will be. If the nominee depends on America Votes, any attempt to move to the center to woo swing votes risks muddling the message or alienating America Votes funders. "This is one of the greatest dislocations of political power in the 200 years of the republic," says GOP lawyer Jan Baran, who represents BCRA challengers.

For voters -- and major contributors -- the bigger question is whether these surrogate parties eliminate the quid pro quo between pre-election donations and post-election favors. "Are they being told, 'Give your half-million to this group and don't worry -- the candidate will know about it'?" asks Georgetown University law professor Roy A. Schotland.

Some analysts predict these intermediaries will make it harder for donors to call in chits -- and that might chill contributions. "Will national donors be willing to give to these groups if they don't get credit for it?" says Kent Cooper, co-founder of, which tracks campaign donations. "A lot of them are probably hesitant." If so, that means less cash for campaigns -- and a win for reformers.

By Lorraine Woellert in Washington

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