- The Washington Times - Monday, October 15, 2012

Conservative nonprofit groups have spent tens of millions of dollars on overtly political advertising this election season, testing the limits of what is legal under campaign rules that restrict how much such groups can spend on advocacy.

But the lesser-known corollary to that effort is that these same groups, such as Americans for Prosperity and Crossroads GPS, some of the biggest operators on the political nonprofit stage, also are quietly building colossal ground-game operations — activities, they say, that ensure they comply with the law.

As “social welfare” groups organized under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code, such groups are able to do some political activity, but their “primary purpose” cannot be political advocacy.

The groups have interpreted that to mean that every ad they run must be matched more than dollar-for-dollar with self-professed nonpartisan spending, which often means on-the-ground operations.

“The way the law reads, it cannot be the primary focal point,” said Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity. “Using activists going door to door, that’s not express advocacy.”

Hitting the street

This weekend in Burke, a Mitt Romney yard sign faced off with a Barack Obama sign in the yard across the street. The Obama sign was paid for by Unite Here, a labor union organization.

In between the houses, green-shirted volunteers from Americans for Prosperity were canvassing the neighborhood in the Washington suburb, stepping over literature from Working America, another union organization — evidence that this was not the neighborhood’s first door-knocking session.

Americans for Prosperity, a free-market advocacy nonprofit tied to the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers, had outfitted the dozen volunteers with Samsung tablet computers, which used GPS to direct the volunteers to homes that had been singled out for visits.

When someone answers the door, the volunteers identify Americans for Prosperity as a nonpartisan group and ask one question: Do you think President Obama’s economic policies have helped or hurt? The response is keyed into the tablet, and the results are beamed instantly to other canvassers and staff to avoid duplication or data loss.

Meg Jaworowski, a volunteer with the group who was sidelined with a broken foot, remained at home and dialed one number that was automatically connected to homes on a list one at a time. The technology has allowed the group’s volunteers to call 6.7 million homes, with a goal of 10 million by Election Day on Nov. 6.

“I’ve worked in campaigns for a long time, and these people know how to do it,” she said.

Residents who tell Americans for Prosperity that they think Mr. Obama has hurt America will receive follow-up calls and mailers urging them to vote, and will be alerted when state affiliates mobilize on a particular issue.

Volunteers don’t try to persuade those who disagree, but they engage supporters and encourage them to bring family members and friends to vote.

“The latest [unemployment] statistics are crock, a lie,” said one homeowner who answered the door and was especially receptive to the message of Americans for Prosperity because he had just lost his job as a military contractor. Some conservatives have complained about the accuracy of recent Labor Department figures this month showing that the politically sensitive national unemployment rate had dropped unexpectedly below 8 percent.

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