Freedom’s Watch, a conservative political advocacy group bankrolled mainly by casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, is shutting down - ending a brief bid to offset the influence of the liberal MoveOn.org after spending $30 million this election.
Multiple sources said the board of directors, which includes former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer and former Ambassador to Italy Mel Sembler, has decided to close down rather than just scale back in postelection mode.
“There are no ifs or buts,” said a Republican operative close to the situation. “The board has made the decision to shut the doors.”
Its initial foray into politics, a $15 million ad campaign defending President Bush’s troop surge in Iraq as Gen. David H. Petraeus was being summoned to testify to Congress about the strategy in 2007, was deemed a success.
But Freedom’s Watch was foiled this year by stiff political and economic headwinds and ended up spending far less than the reported $200 million budget the organization had hoped for, and its dependence on Mr. Adelson was part of its undoing.
Only a year ago, Mr. Adelson, 75, was the third-richest man in America, with a net worth of $28 billion. But since then, Mr. Adelson’s company, Las Vegas Sands Corp., has lost 95 percent of its stock value.
A Freedom’s Watch official argued that Mr. Adelson was not the only source of funds for the group and that the real problem was that a whole roster of donors, for whom politics is “between a personal agenda and a hobby,” has felt the pinch of the economic crisis.
But Mr. Adelson contributed most of Freedom’s Watch’s money, sources familiar with the group’s operation said. The organization’s reliance on his largesse was such that over the summer all staffers were herded in front of a video camera to sing “Happy Birthday” to Mr. Adelson.
At its founding, Freedom’s Watch touted itself as an answer of sorts to the liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org.
But where Freedom’s Watch was a top-down organization reliant on a few wealthy donors, MoveOn functions as a bottom-up, grass-roots organization that draws its support from a massive e-mail list of more than 4 million members. It uses the list to raise money and to organize support or opposition on policy battles.
MoveOn celebrated its 10th anniversary this year and is crafting a new role for itself now that both the executive and legislative branches of government will be controlled by the Democrats.
The National Republican Congressional Committee, the main fundraising arm for House Republicans, was in disarrray for much of the year, and the presence of former NRCC communications director Carl Forti at Freedom’s Watch raised fears among Democrats that the group could begin to function as a shadow NRCC.
“This cycle House Democrats won a historic victory even though we had to mount a two-front fight against the NRCC and Freedom’s Watch,” said a Democratic strategist, who asked to be quoted anonymously.
“While their demise is welcome, the GOP will just go for another shady soft-money group to help them do their dirty work, so no one is running victory laps here.”
Freedom’s Watch spokesman Ed Patru said the group had made a significant impact during the course of its short life.
“Freedom’s Watch provided an important shot of adrenaline that was in no way inconsequential at a time when conservatism was struggling,” he said.
As a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, the group was allowed to engage in politics only if it focused on issues and not specific candidates. Still, the group unofficially acted on behalf of Republican candidates by running issues-oriented ads in key battleground states.
The group counted some successes, despite initial failed efforts in two special congressional elections last summer in which Republicans turned seats over to Democrats.
“Freedom’s Watch was a great help to us. They ran strong ads and effectively presented the clear contrast in the values of the candidates to Georgia voters,” said Justin Tomczak, political director for Sen. Saxby Chambliss, Georgia Republican, who held on to his seat by winning a runoff election last week.
In House races, Freedom’s Watch helped New Jersey state Sen. Leonard Lance get elected to Congress and helped Illinois Rep. Mark Steven Kirk retain his seat.
But Georgia was the only Senate race targeted by Freedom’s Watch where the Republican candidate was victorious. In Oregon, Colorado and North Carolina, Republican candidates were defeated despite the group’s efforts.
The group always had planned a reduction after the election, and up until the Thanksgiving holiday it was considering downsizing from its peak size of about 50 staffers during the campaign to a few key positions. A skeleton crew could have focused on a few issues under debate in Congress.
Now, the organization will retain one or two persons to handle the process of winding down.