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“I think that was blatantly obvious,” canvasser Rosemary Storaska, an economics teacher at a public school, told the homeowner.

Political activity

“People focus on what they see — in fact, can’t escape — on the airwaves. But this other spending is a big deal,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political spending. “The investment is substantial, the work especially counters the unions’ longtime advantage in the ground war, and it likely represents a foundation for such campaigns in the future.”

Democrats and some campaign finance analysts have argued that groups like Americans for Prosperity are chiefly about politics, and that their activities run afoul of the law governing nonprofits.

“It’s clear a lot of these groups’ primary purpose is to influence elections,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, Maryland Democrat.

The statute says nonprofits must be engaged only in “social welfare” issues, but courts said “insubstantial” political activity is acceptable. The Internal Revenue Service later clarified that ruling with language saying activity designed to promote a particular candidate may not be the groups’ “primary purpose.”

Some groups have said that means as much as 49 percent of their activity can be “express advocacy” — but they also know that the interpretation is up for debate.

Seeking to counter that, officials with Americans for Prosperity say they will spend far less on advocacy than they do on other activities.

The group already has run $32 million in political ads, but it has spent about $38 million on ads that don’t directly urge viewers to vote for a particular candidate, spokesman Levi Russell said.

All told, Americans for Prosperity will spend $100 million, up from earlier estimates of $80 million, he said, which leaves about $30 million for canvassing, phone calls, rallies, a 200-member staff and a giveaway of gasoline discounted to $1.84 a gallon — the price when Mr. Obama took office.

A challenge to unions

Americans for Prosperity’s efforts represent a conservative challenge to a tactic that has long been employed by liberal-leaning trade unions. This year, members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) have done the vast majority of the door-to-door canvassing, knocking on 1 million doors between June and last week. To meet a goal it set this summer, canvassers will have to knock on half that number in the next three weeks alone. If it succeeds, the SEIU will dramatically outpace Americans for Prosperity on individual home visits (the group aims for 150,000 homes) and narrowly on phone calls (SEIU aims to make a total of 13 million calls).

Last weekend, SEIU members wielding iPhones knocked on 7,200 doors in Virginia.

The union’s political accounts have at least $12 million in the bank. SEIU has spent more than $9 million on pro-Democrat canvassing, including $2.3 million to take place over the next two weeks.

That money includes salaries. Workers who are members of the union have taken leave from their jobs for up to two months to canvass, with the union paying their day jobs’ salaries during that time. But it also includes money to print literature and procure vans for volunteer canvassers, in which case the money would go a lot further.

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