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Hybrid groups using freedom, cash clout

Conservatives buy ads, start petitions

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Conservative groups are up and running with new, hybrid organizations this election cycle that have more freedom and spending power than traditional nonprofits and think tanks to go after President Obama and the Democratic-led Congress.

"We've got to stop the momentum of the train wreck that is being played out in Washington," said Virginia Thomas, founder of the Liberty Central group and wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Mrs. Thomas started the 501(c)4 group last year and the Heritage Foundation, the leading conservative think tank, followed this year by creating Heritage Action for America, which also operates under the IRS status that allows tax-exempt, nonprofits to support political campaigns and lobby Congress.

"People are looking for ways to invest their money where leadership is provided and there is a conservative vision for America," said Michael Needham, Heritage Action for America's chief executive officer. "People want to invest in causes that work."

He said the group was conceived during a September 2009 summit for foundation officials, who felt sidelined as the debate over President Obama's health care overhaul plan was in full swing.

"We were asking ourselves the same question as other Americans, 'What more can we do?' " he recalled.

Because of its legal status, Heritage Foundation analyses by its top experts often carry the disclaimer that "nothing written here is to be construed as ... an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before Congress." The latitude for groups like Heritage Action for America is far more expansive.

In its efforts to turn back Mr. Obama's health care plan, Heritage Action is lobbying openly for lawmakers to approve a parliamentary tactic that essentially would force the House to stage a revote. The petition now has signatures from 170 lawmakers, all Republicans, but will need 218 to advance.

The group is buying advertising time in several districts and started this week with TV spots against North Carolina Rep. Mike McIntyre and Missouri Rep. Ike Skelton, Democrats who opposed the health care overhaul but have not agreed to the petition.

Heritage Action achieved perhaps a greater success in rallying opposition to the Obama administration's new nuclear arms agreement with Russia.

Former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, who supports the "New START" agreement, recently said Heritage Action's influence was "certainly serious enough to silence some Republican senators."

Initially hopeful of pushing the treaty through this summer, the Obama administration and its allies had to accept a delay into the September session as supporters seek more Republican votes in committee and on the Senate floor.

Mrs. Thomas calls the Internet the "Paul Revere of our times" and relies upon it largely to connect with disenfranchised voters.

Indeed, the group paid no salaries its first year, but spent $26,808 on Internet-based research and development, according to IRS filings.

Mrs. Thomas said one purpose of Liberty Central will be to serve as "connective tissue" between the surging "tea party" movement and the conservative establishment. She rejects what she says is the mainstream media's characterization of Liberty Central as an extension of the movement.

"I've been friendly to those groups as I have with others," Mrs. Thomas said. "But we're also connected with chief executive officers and small-business owners. And we're a little larger than the tea party, if I may. Our five principles include national security and personal responsibility issues, such as marriage and family."

The site has an online training program to help voters engage lawmakers and polls from which Mrs. Thomas says she gleans "data points" from participants to use during interviews.

"An activism how-to website to help citizens prepare to hold members of Congress accountable for their actions in Washington when they return home for summer recess," is how Liberty Central describes the online program, a joint venture with the Leadership Institute.

Liberty Central got a running start last year with donations of $500,000 and $50,000, the IRS filings also show. Mrs. Thomas has been active in public policy for about 30 years, including work as legal counsel for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and policy analyst for former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, Texas Republican.

Heritage Action officials only said they receive fundraising help from the foundation and they have enough money to compete in the political debate.

Critics say the new hybrid nonprofits are really think tanks seeking the clout and freedom of traditional lobbyists. The new groups on the right, they say, are a response to the Center for American Progress Action Fund - the liberal advocacy group started in 2003 by the Center for American Progress think tank. The group was instrumental in providing research and talking points for the Obama campaign in 2008 and for the president's agenda since taking office.

"I appreciate the fact some groups really are skirting the limits, but that's not what we do," said Neera Tanden, chief operating officer for both of the liberal groups. "We have the [action fund] to better promote the ideas of the [foundation] and we take every precaution to preserve that difference."

Ms. Tanden said the issue is not whether other groups have mirrored American Progress or have adopted better messaging strategies.

"It's about having good ideas that make this country better," she said.

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