- The Washington Times - Friday, August 29, 2008

DENVER | Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the House Democrats’ chief fundraiser, said Thursday his Republican counterparts are using “shadowy organizations” to skirt campaign finance laws and target Democratic candidates nationwide.

“There are these shadowy groups out there who can spend an unlimited amount of unaccountable money,” Mr. Van Hollen said in a newsmaker interview with The Washington Times. “That is what Freedom’s Watch is geared up to do.”

Freedom’s Watch, a conservative group not directly affiliated with the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), has targeted 16 districts held by Democrats with mailings and ad purchases this year.

Mr. Van Hollen, the Montgomery County lawmaker who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), cautioned his members that the NRCC would likely rely on Freedom’s Watch and other “527” groups to fund races across the nation.

“This is the NRCC in exile,” Mr. Van Hollen said. “For these elections, they have essentially contracted out to Freedom’s Watch.”

The NRCC and Freedom’s Watch fired back quickly.

“It takes a certain breed of hypocrite to accuse anybody of being shadowy, when half the restaurants in Denver have overflow crowds of lobbyists mixing it up with Democratic lawmakers behind closed doors,” said Ed Patru, a spokesman for Freedom’s Watch.

Mr. Patru would not disclose how much his group had raised this election cycle.

“These fringe groups have been doing the Democrats’ bidding for two years,” said NRCC spokeswoman Julie Shutley.

Freedom Watch’s literature says it engages in “grass-roots lobbying, education and information campaigns, and issue advocacy” in support of “mainstream conservative public policies.”

“Freedom’s Watch solicits funding from all industry sectors to ensure the long-term viability of the organization and to expand its invested stakeholders,” it adds.

Democrats and liberal candidates have enjoyed strong support from issue-advocacy groups such as MoveOn.org, which are exempt from fundraising limits placed on the official party congressional operations.

The DCCC reported having about $56 million cash on hand at the end of last month, while the NRCC had $14 million cash on hand last month.

Political handicappers have predicted that Democrats, who won a net 31 seats in 2006 to seize control of the House, will gain seven to 16 House seats in November, further solidifying their hold on power.

Mr. Van Hollen, while optimistic, said he would not make predictions about how many seats his party would win in November’s elections.

Democrats touted special-election wins earlier this year in three Republican districts, including Louisiana, Mississippi and the Illinois seat vacated by former Republican House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert.

“The mood in those congressional districts was one where those voters were fed up with the status quo and the Bush-Cheney years,” Mr. Van Hollen said.

Despite the positive momentum for Democrats this year, Mr. Van Hollen insisted Democrats face an uphill battle against a historical precedent of parties losing seats in the election immediately following large gains.

“If we pick up any seats in this election, we will have beaten the historical pattern,” he said.

Mr. Van Hollen’s strategy has focused, much like the campaign of party presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, on donations made over the Internet, building a strong network of campaign volunteers in each congressional district and relying on a team of DCCC opposition researchers he called “the best in D.C.”

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