Final IA-01 news roundup: A test of outside spending power

Greeting workers at Davenport's Oscar Mayer plant at 5 am today, Representative Bruce Braley said, "This is where you get a feel for what politics should be." No doubt retail campaigning is more fun than being on the receiving end of about $1.6 million in spending by the American Future Fund and U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Most handicappers have Braley favored to win re-election; if he loses tonight, the conservative groups that put this race on the map will get much of the credit.

After the jump I review the campaigns waged by Republican challenger Ben Lange, Braley and the groups targeting each candidate in Iowa's first Congressional district.

Lange isn't an impressive candidate, but he is smart enough not to advocate specific right-wing policies in a D+5 district. His first television commercial expressed a generic message of change. Lange's second tv ad, "Faith," struck a similar tone:

If you've lost faith in the American people and believe government should bail out Wall Street, take over private companies, control your most intimate health care decisions, then vote for Bruce Braley and the Pelosi agenda. But if you still believe in the American people, in American ingenuity, free enterprise, the foundations of the American dream, then vote for me, Ben Lange. No party recruited me, no party owns me. I'm Ben Lange, I approved this message.

It's a balancing act for Lange. He wants to reach voters who are angry about government bailouts and health care reform without sounding angry himself. Upbeat words about American ingenuity won't alienate many people, and Lange understands that voters dissatisfied with Democrats haven't necessarily embraced the Republican brand. He frequently uses this "above partisanship" rhetoric in campaign appearances. Listen to his closing statement from the October 10 Braley-Lange debate in Waverly:

This election is a referendum on President Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Bruce Braley. If you have lost faith in American ingenuity and the American people and believe the proper role of government is to take over companies, bail out Wall Street and interject government into your intimate health care decisions, as I've said before, vote for my opponent. But if you still believe in the American people, the American ingenuity, entrepreneurship, that has made us the most free and prosperous country in the history of the world, then vote for me. This isn't Republican, this isn't Democrat. In fact, I want to make clear to everyone here. I want to make clear to Democrats, I want to make clear to independents, I want to make clear to Republicans. No party owns me, no party recruited me. This is about principle. And on November 2, you will have an opportunity. This election is about one thing. Do we send the same politicians back to Washington DC and hope for different results? Or do we say, "Enough is enough"? Do we send a message to Washington DC that this will not be tolerated? You know, we can send someone to Washington DC that is going to put principle before party. Thank you.

If I were seeking an independent voice, I wouldn't look toward a former GOP Congressional staffer like Lange, but it's smart for him to avoid a harsh partisan message.  

He doesn't need ads with scary music and hyperbole about Braley, because outside groups are doing the heavy lifting for him.

The Chamber of Commerce has spent roughly a quarter of a million dollars against Braley, much of it on an ad about health care reform: "It says the new reform law would 'gut' Medicare and reduce benefits for Iowa seniors." No matter how many times fact-checkers debunk that claim, the Chamber keeps using it against Democratic House incumbents all over the country. A similar commercial has been running against Leonard Boswell in Iowa's third district.

The 501(c)4 group American Future Fund has spent several times more on the race than Lange and probably has outspent Braley's campaign. The group has paid for lots of direct mail and robocalls against Braley, but the bulk of its spending went toward television and radio commercials. The first tv ad hit Braley on this year's favorite culture war issue, the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque." The second accused Braley of supporting higher taxes. PoliticalCorrection.org thoroughly dismantled that tax ad. Click that link for evidence disproving virtually every line. Highlights: letting the Bush tax cuts expire wouldn't be the "Biggest Tax Hike In American History" and would affect only 3 percent of small business owners, Congressional Democrats support extending tax cuts for 97 percent of Americans, the House delayed (not canceled) action on the tax cuts. This was my favorite part of the fact-checking piece (emphasis added by PoliticalCorrection.org):

AFF's Source For "Middle-Class Iowa Families" Tax Hike Claim Confirms Middle Class Families Pay Lower Taxes Under Democrats' Plan

AFF's Braley ad cites an August 1, 2010 report from the Tax Foundation.

Tax Foundation Report: Under Democrats' Proposal Middle-Class Families Would Pay Lower Taxes In 2011. According to an analysis by the Tax Foundation, cited in American Freedom Fund's ad: "The two tables below show how the 'average middle-income family' for each state (Table 1) and congressional district (Table 2) would be affected by expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts in 2011. Congressional districts are organized by the alphabetic order of states and then the congressional district's number. Note that in this report, we do not present the results under the proposed policies of President Obama, although in most circumstances, the 'average middle-income' family would not see much difference between the president's proposal and the scenario of Bush-era tax cuts extended. Technically, most families falling in the middle of the income distribution would see lower tax bills under the proposed policies in the president's budget when compared to a mere extension of the Bush-era tax cuts for 2011 due to his proposed one-year extension of the Making Work Pay tax credit, which was labeled in the president's budget as a 'temporary economic recovery' measure." [The Tax Foundation, 8/1/10, emphasis added]

How much more wrong can an ad get?

UPDATE: The American Future Fund ran a slightly different and just as inaccurate version of this commercial too. The alternate script blamed second district Representative Dave Loebsack as well as Braley for going home "instead of stopping a huge tax hike for Iowa families."

The American Future Fund has also tried to generate bad press for Braley by filing two ethics complaints. The first cited Braley's use of House floor proceedings footage on his campaign website:

According to AFF, an Iowa-based conservative group, the House Ethics Manual clearly states:

"Broadcast coverage and recordings of House floor proceedings may not be used for any political purpose under House Rule 5, clause 2(c)(1). In addition, under House Rule 11, clause 4(b), radio and television tapes and film of any coverage of House committee proceedings may not be used, or made available for use, as partisan political campaign material to promote or oppose the candidacy of any person for public office."

"We alerted Mr. Braley that he was in violation of House Rules by using official product for campaign use," said AFF spokesman Nick Ryan, who worked for Braley's predecessor, Republican Rep. Jim Nussle. "He chose not to make any changes, so we filed the ethics complaint. [...]

If there was a violation, it was unintentional, Braley said. There are restrictions on the use of official actions on the House floor, he said. However, his understanding is that once the video footage has been posted in the public domain, those restrictions do not apply.

I don't know what the rules say about House floor footage that has already been posted in the public domain. Braley had the footage removed from his campaign website without admitting having done anything wrong. Complaints such as these generally aren't processed for months.

American Future Fund founder Nick Ryan filed a second ethics complaint alleging Braley was having a Congressional staffer do campaign work. The staffer, Caitlin Legacki, provided documents to the Des Moines Register showing that she has taken a pay decrease for her Congressional work while she spends time as an independent contractor for Braley's campaign. During election season, when Congress is in recess, many staffers do some work on campaigns, with the campaigns paying for that labor.

Meanwhile, watchdog groups have filed a Federal Elections Commission complaint against the American Future Fund:

The group is registered as a 501(c)(4) organization, which under IRS tax code cannot have a primary purpose of influencing elections. Similarly, federal election law provides that if a group's major purpose is electioneering and it spends at least $1,000 to influence elections, it must register as a political committee. American Future Fund's major activity appears to be its extensive electioneering activities, the watchdogs argue.

American Future Fund reportedly has devoted more than half its advertising spending this year - approximately $3 million as of a few days ago - on television ads that expressly call on voters to vote for or against particular candidates, the complaint said, citing a recent New York Times analysis. These ads attack candidates in more than a dozen congressional districts, such as Reps. Mark Schauer (D-Ind.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) and West Virginia State Sen. Mike Oliverio, also a Democrat.

Including ads that expressly tell voters how they should vote and other ads with electioneering messages, American Future Fund, created in 2007, has spent nearly $8.8 million so far to influence the 2010 elections, making it among the highest-spending groups participating in electioneering, according to Public Citizen's analysis of FEC records. The organization's website even highlights its efforts to "target" what it calls "liberal politicians." And according to published reports, the group plans to spend up to $25 million on the elections.

"American Future Fund is pulling out the stops to ensure that Republicans are elected this November," said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist with Public Citizen. "That imposes on the group the legal duty to register with the FEC and disclose exactly who is funding all those expenditures."

The FEC requires political committees to disclose comprehensive information regarding their financial activities, including the identity of any donor who has contributed $200 or more to the committee within the calendar year. IRS rules for 501(c)(4) organizations do not require such disclosures and, hiding behind this nonprofit tax status, American Future Foundation has not made its donor information public.

Click here for a pdf file of that FEC complaint, which probably won't be resolved until sometime in 2011. Nick Ryan admits that U.S. corporations have helped fund his group's issue advocacy, but he says, "We can show clearly that our main focus is always on the advocacy of free enterprise and conservative values." Funny how the fund's need to advocate ramps up dramatically during the weeks before an election.

Side note: I got a laugh out of American Future Fund board president Sandy Greiner's comments on the FEC complaint:

Greiner said in a telephone interview Friday that she had not seen the complaint and did not have immediate access to a breakdown of the group's financial record.

However, she said the fund's "real focus" is on the education and lecture part."

She said AFF has sponsored at least four lectures in Iowa recently.

Who does she think she's kidding? Greiner's group has spent more than $1.2 million against Braley alone, and at least $600,000 against Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller. How can Greiner say with a straight face that the group's "real focus" is on education and lectures? I still can't believe Greiner's involvement with the American Future Fund didn't become a major issue in her campaign to represent Iowa Senate district 45.

But I digress. Back to the campaign in IA-01.

Braley has repeatedly called attention to the secret donors funding the American Future Fund attacks. He's played up this point in campaign commercials and during his joint appearance with Lange on Iowa Public Television.

Another recurring theme for Braley is Lange's support for "tax breaks for billionaires." Braley has used the charge in his own television commercials and brought it up during his debate with Lange. This spot called "When" started running in the middle of October:

My transcript:

Male voice-over: He stood up to his own party, and Bruce Braley got fair Medicare payments for Iowa doctors. Took on the Pentagon to secure combat pay for Iowa troops. Cut red tape for our veterans.

And Ben Lange?

When big oil opposed green jobs, Lange agreed.

When big insurance fought to deny coverage, he had their back.

When Wall Street tried to block reform, he stood with them.

Ben Lange for the big guys, Braley for Iowa.

Braley: I'm Bruce Braley, and I approved this message.

I hardly think big oil and insurance companies even knew who Ben Lange was, so I can't see how the Iowa Republican "had their back." However, Lange has criticized the Braley votes this commercial alludes to: for the climate change bill, health insurance reform and new regulations for the finance industry.

Braley has also had help from outside groups. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee started running this commercial ten days before the election:

My transcript:

Male voice-over: You learn a lot about someone by who they stand with in tough times. [photos of Ben Lange with his name on screen]

Ben Lange says America's ultra-wealthy need more tax breaks. [on screen: footage from one of Lange's tv ads, words "BEN LANGE: MORE TAX BREAKS FOR THE ULTRA WEALTHY"]

He opposed the largest middle-class tax cuts in history. ["BEN LANGE: OPPOSED MIDDLE CLASS TAX CUTS"]

And Lange was against closing a loophole for corporations sending jobs overseas. ["BEN LANGE: AGAINST CLOSING TAX LOOPHOLES FOR OUTSOURCERS"]

Look around, times are tough. Ben Lange still stands with special interests. ["BEN LANGE: SIDING WITH POWERFUL SPECIAL INTERESTS"]

Where does that leave the rest of us?

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is responsible for the content of this advertising. [on screen: footage of Lange, "BEN LANGE: WHERE DOES THAT LEAVE IOWA?"

The bit about the largest middle-class tax cuts in history refers to the 2009 stimulus bill, which Lange has bashed many times. Lange has also advocated tax code changes that would benefit high earners, so I think this commercial is fair, even though it does use the trite sinister music and black and white footage.

On October 28, a group called Protecting Americas Retirees started running a negative spot on Lange, focused on Social Security:

Transcript:

Female voice-over: What are seniors hoping for if Republicans take over Congress? [elderly couple eating breakfast together]

You're hoping things will change? [man sends wife out the door with lunch box, waves at her]

Hope you're also planning to stay on the job. Because at least one change means seniors will have to work. [woman gets into driver's seat of car with taxi meter, heads off to work]

And work. And keep right on working. [footage of older men in firefighter gear spraying water as if trying to put out a fire]

Yes, that's right, the Republican leadership wants to raise your retirement age to 70. [footage of older man in hardhat running jackhammer, older woman in swimsuit and cap climbing up ladder to lifeguard's chair, older woman carrying heavy boxes, older man in hardhat working on utility pole]

So tell Ben Lange this is no joke. [black and white footage of Lange, with "BEN LANGE, REPUBLICAN" on screen]

We can't wait for Social Security until our 70th birthday. [more footage of older people trying to do physical labor]

Protect Social Security. Vote Bruce Braley for Congress. Protecting America's Retirees is responsible for the content of this advertising.[pieces of Social Security card come together as whole on left of screen; Braley's photo on right, words "Vote Bruce Braley for Congress"]

Lange hasn't advocating raising the retirement age, as far as I know. He says he's for letting people choose alternate retirement savings accounts but not for "privatizing" Social Security. If elected, I wouldn't bet on him to buck the House GOP leadership, which does support Social Security cuts, but this commercial seems to put words in Lange's mouth.

If Braley is re-elected and Obama's deficit commission proposes any Social Security benefit cuts or retirement age increase, Braley had better vote no.

Other groups that oppose Social Security cuts are supporting Braley as well. In fact, the American Future Fund's Ryan slammed Braley for accepting help from the DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security:

"I'm not surprised Braley basks in the endorsement of a liberal nonprofit based in Washington, DC, and attacks a conservative group like AFF that is based in Iowa," AFF's Nick Ryan said. "It's a question of DC values versus Iowa values."

Like the AFF, the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare is a 501(c)(4) and does not disclose the source of all of its funding. However, its political action fund - which is supporting Braley, is registered as a political action committee and, therefore, not limited by the same restrictions as AFF, a Braley spokeswoman said.

To hear Ryan tell it, having a 501(c)4 group spend more than $1 million against a House incumbent is equivalent to that incumbent accepting a $2,000 campaign contribution from a different 501(c)4's PAC. Nice try.

The big question is whether all the money spent against Braley will take him down. No public poll of the IA-01 race has been released in some time, and neither Braley nor the DCCC have released internal polling. Various political analysts rate the IA-01 race as "lean Democrat" or "Democrat-favored," which probably means that internal polling shows Braley ahead. The National Journal considers it the 86th most likely House seat to change hands, suggesting Braley would fall only if it's an extraordinary night for Republicans.

If Braley wins narrowly tonight, his opponents will probably feel satisfied to have damaged his future statewide political ambitions. Lange wasn't a high-profile or particularly skilled challenger.

Share any thoughts on the IA-01 race in this thread.

  • Braley

    If Bruce goes down I think we're looking at a seventy of eighty seat gain for the GOP I assume.  I think even if he wins closely he should keep his eye on Harkin's U.S. Senate seat in 2014.  

    2014 is too far off to guess what the political and economic landscapes will look like.  I get frustrated with our base because they aren't pleased with the work that's been done over the last two years, but they also don't understand that ninety percent of the people we are running against (or at least the people voting for them.)   truly believe the Constitution is set in stone and basically everything should be run by the states.  The left in this country doesn't quite understand the ramifications of those views quite yet, I fear.

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