Political strategist Karl Rove, freed of his White House role, is encouraging major Republican donors to give their money to organizations that operate independently of the Republican Party and are poised to spend upwards of $100 million trying to elect conservatives this fall.
Mr. Rove, the architect of President Bush’s election victories, has been telling Republican benefactors across the country that giving to official Republican Party fundraising committees will not be enough this year, according to people familiar with his pitch over the past few months.
They said Mr. Rove has regularly expressed concern that Democrat-leaning organizations such as MoveOn.org and labor unions could swamp the Republican Party’s money machine and overwhelm the presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican.
To counter that wave, Mr. Rove has been asking elite Republican fundraisers to pour their millions of dollars into nonparty groups like Freedom’s Watch, which is gearing up to spend tens of millions of dollars to help elect conservatives - primarily Republicans - to Congress and the White House.
Freedom’s Watch has purchased advertisements that help Republican candidates by emphasizing issues rather than the candidates and do so without coordinating with the Republican Party.
Independent groups such as Freedom’s Watch on the right and MoveOn.org Political Action on the left will fuel much of the on-air and on-the-ground skirmishing this fall between Democratic and Republican candidates. Well-heeled donors often prefer using these organizations as conduits for their contributions because they often can remain anonymous and because the groups’ expenditures are not disclosed until after they are made, if at all.
Mr. Rove declined to comment about his discussions with Republican fundraisers.
But his spokesman, Mark Corallo, acknowledged that Mr. Rove, when asked, has encouraged people to fill the coffers of groups that in effect act as adjuncts to the Republican Party.
The message, Mr. Corallo said, was: “Conservatives, when interested, ought to contribute generously to groups that advocate their goals.”
Mr. Rove has pushed Freedom’s Watch in particular, said several people who have heard him make the case. He has told donors that he trusts the two longtime Republican operatives running the organization.
One is Executive Vice President Carl Forti, who is the former political director of the presidential campaign of Mitt Romney and the former communications director of the National Republican Congressional Committee. The other is Executive Vice President Tony Feather, who was political director for Mr. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign and is a founding partner in FLS-DCI, a consulting firm for corporations and political candidates.
Mr. Rove is not paid by Freedom’s Watch, but nonetheless has spoken highly of its efforts when asked by Republican moneymen where they should put their contributions this fall, said people close to the former White House strategist.
The result has been an uptick in contributions to Freedom’s Watch.
“It has raised our profile, and his confidence in the operation has helped legitimize it in the minds of potential donors,” a Freedom’s Watch official said.
The group spent $17 million last year, according to its latest public disclosure, and has spent about $20 million in total, a spokesman said.
Freedom’s Watch has begun to concern some Democrats, with its large bankroll and plan to play in multiple markets with hard-hitting attacks.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, chairman of the House Democrats’ fundraising committee, accused Republicans of having “essentially contracted out to Freedom’s Watch” to do their fundraising and attack ads.
“There are these shadowy groups out there who can spend an unlimited amount of unaccountable money,” Mr. Van Hollen said Thursday in an interview with The Washington Times. “That is what ‘Freedom’s Watch’ is geared up to do.”
Mr. Rove also has recommended that donors with strong pro-life positions on abortion give money to the National Right to Life Committee. The committee declined to comment.
Republicans have been at a disadvantage on the money front through much of this election cycle. Democratic candidates for president, the House and the Senate have outraised their Republican counterparts.
The Democratic re-election committee in the House has raised $109 million, $29 million more than the Republican committee. In the Senate, the Democratic committee has collected $93 million compared with $59 million by its Republican counterpart.
Only at the national committee level do Republicans top Democrats. The Republican National Committee has raised $457 million compared with $417 million by the Democratic National Committee, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama is so confident that the trend will continue and that he will bring in large amounts of money that he has declined to take public funding for his general election bid. Mr. McCain, on the other hand, will accept and stick to the $84 million that the federal government is offering.
Mr. Obama’s supporters expect that he will raise and spend much more than $84 million this fall. His own funds will be supplemented by several efforts that will total hundreds of millions of dollars.
For example, the AFL-CIO has approved a political budget of $53 million and its affiliated unions are expected to spend an additional $200 million on political activities. The National Education Association probably will spend more than $40 million and the Service Employees International Union has designated $100 million.
MoveOn.org also will spend substantial sums, conservatively estimated at more than $30 million. Last week its political arm launched a $2.5 million fundraising effort to bankroll a drive to register 500,000 voters.
Major corporations also will spend tens of millions of dollars to counter labor unions, especially over the question of secret ballots in union certification elections. Companies are worried that if secret ballots are eliminated, their workers will be unionized with greater ease.
Independent groups often do not advocate the election of specific candidates, but buy commercials or send out fliers that support policy positions. The effect of the effort is often the same because candidates are named in the advertisements and are closely associated with the issues mentioned.