- The Washington Times - Monday, August 13, 2012

Two conservative advocacy groups are in the midst of an ad-buying spree so intense that when combined, they have bought more commercials in the country’s major markets than President Obama’s campaign, according to new disclosure records analyzed by The Washington Times.

The new buys also dwarf Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s recent purchases, and reach geographically well beyond the markets Mr. Obama is targeting.

Last week Americans for Prosperity, which has connections to the conservative billionaire Koch brothers, bought 282 ads, including 23 in Charlotte, N.C., 23 in Philadelphia, 24 in Las Vegas and 21 each in Minneapolis and Albuquerque, N.M.

Another conservative group tied to Republican strategist Karl Rove, Crossroads GPS, bought 97 ads, combining for more than Mr. Obama’s 316. Mr. Romney bought just 100 ads in the same time frame, The Times analysis showed.

“This is our first express advocacy buy,” said Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, which had previously focused largely on behind-the-scenes research and polling.

What makes the new ad purchases all the more unusual is that they are not super PACs — the independent political groups that roiled the presidential primary season with their unlimited fundraising but report to the Federal Election Commission. Instead, they are one step further outside the traditional political system, formed as nonprofits organized under the “social welfare” section of the tax code.

While super PACs disclose the sources of their funds and their expenditures to the Federal Election Commission, nonprofits do neither.

But new Federal Communications Commission rules implemented this month require the major English-language television networks — ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox — in the top 50 markets to disclose new advertising purchases.

“I think this is unprecedented. The outside spending was significant in 2008 but it wasn’t sort of unbridled. There were restrictions,” including on “how and when they ran their advertising. the regulation had a lot to do with the tempering,” said John Carroll, a professor of mass communications at Boston University, of the findings. “This time around they’ve just dominated the campaign.”

Mr. Phillips accepted the compliment.

“This year outside groups like us have been able to match or maybe exceed the president from March on, and that’s been a sea change. The first ad we did in 2012 was in January on Solyndra. It was a significant multimillion-dollar ad and he went up a few hours after that with his first ad. Normally that’s a warm fuzzy one, but he was forced to respond to our message,” he said.

The way the ad market works, outside groups get better bang for their buck in the summer. Come the fall, they said they expect the campaigns to dominate again.

“If you look at the total dollar amounts [Mr. Romney] hasn’t spent, he’ll spend triple or quadruple in September or October,” Mr. Phillips said.

His group plans to spend more than $25 million in overtly political ads before Labor Day, as part of a $60 million total ad budget in the election.

They also have non-advertising activities, including 200 workers knocking on doors.

On paper, there are restrictions designed to keep political groups within the domain of the FEC. But in practice, nonprofits have quickly found ways to spend hundreds of millions of dollars, with nearly all of their total expenditures having the potential to affect people’s votes.

“The way the law reads, it cannot be the primary focal point, so we read that to mean it means less that half,” Mr. Phillips said of restrictions on overtly political ads.

But Mr. Carroll questioned how ostensibly charitable organizations could have entire missions predicated on politics.

“It makes you wonder where are they spending the other 51 percent?” he asked. “My other question is how closely is that monitored in real time. If the groups are abusing the regulation, would anyone find out in time? If they were fined after the election, I don’t think they’d even mind paying it.”

Mr. Phillips said much of the rest of his group’s expenditures go to “issue ads” — many of them political advertisements that, while indistinguishable from overtly candidate-centric ads to the average viewer, avoid key words such as “vote for.”

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