The men of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, not getting the attention they wanted during the presidential election, turned to the most potent political tool available to them — the “527” organization.
They weren’t alone.
Voters quickly became familiar with the likes of MoveOn.org and fellow liberal organizations from one side, and the “Swifties” and other pro-President Bush or anti-John Kerry groups from the other side.
All together, the so-called 527s poured nearly half a billion dollars into advertising and get-out-the-vote efforts.
But with key members of Congress promising a crackdown and a challenge pending in federal court, the fate of the 527s is anything but certain.
“I frankly don’t know what the future is for 527s,” said Christopher LaCivita, a Republican consultant used by the Swifties.
“Quite frankly, [527s] scare me, because of the role they play. But, at the same time, it’s a matter of free speech,” he said. “Swift Boats is probably the reason why they should exist — because they were put together by normal people who are exercising their First Amendment rights.”
Before this year, 527s — named for the section of federal tax law that governs them — weren’t a player in campaigns. That’s mainly because standard political committees governed by the Federal Election Commission could raise and spend “soft money,” unlimited donations that they could use for anything other than calling specifically for the election or defeat of a candidate.
In 2002, the new law overhauling campaign-finance rules changed that, banning parties from raising and spending soft money and restricting how political committees governed by the FEC could advertise. So partisans turned to 527s, which aren’t governed by the FEC.
Rep. Martin T. Meehan, Massachusetts Democrat and one of those who sponsored the legislation, said the resulting law worked but needs some tweaking.
“We have not fixed all of the flaws in the system, but this election demonstrated that the 2002 reforms have done a lot of good,” he said.
He and his fellow reformers, including Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, have sponsored a bill to crack down on 527s — forcing them to abide by contribution limits if they engage in political advertising.
Meanwhile, a court challenge filed by President Bush’s campaign in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia asks the FEC to issue a rule that also would force limits on contributions to groups that engage in electioneering.
“The future of 527 organizations really rests with Congress and the federal courts at this point,” FEC Commissioner Michael Toner said.
With final reports still to come, the liberal America Coming Together raised the most of any 527 this campaign season at $61.8 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics’ Web site. The liberal Media Fund was second with $51.7 million in receipts. The third-highest total CRP lists is for Progress for America, a conservative fund, with receipts of $37.9 million.
The top individual donor was billionaire George Soros, who gave $23.4 million to liberal 527s.
The Media Fund took credit for helping keep Democratic presidential nominee Mr. Kerry afloat in the spring, after he emptied his campaign treasury in winning his party’s nomination. He faced the prospect of being eliminated from the race by an early advertising blitz by Mr. Bush, but the Media Fund and MoveOn.org stepped in with their own ads blasting the president.
“The GOP strategy to dominate the airwaves did not succeed in large part because TMF and its allies made a significant impact, keeping a Democratic message on the air at competitive levels,” Jim Jordan, who ran the Media Fund’s operations, said in a campaign postmortem e-mail.
America Coming Together and MoveOn.org focused on turning out voters.
MoveOn, which is three separate entities — a 527, a tax-exempt 501(c)4 and a political action committee — claims to have turned out more than 27,000 voters in Wisconsin, where Mr. Kerry’s margin of victory was 11,813 votes.
But the liberal groups’ early dominance on the airwaves was offset in the late summer by conservative and anti-Kerry 527s.
The Swifties raised $26 million in their campaign to go after Mr. Kerry, with more than 100,000 of those donations, and $7 million, coming from online contributors. The group ran ads accusing the Massachusetts senator of distorting his Vietnam War record and showing him giving congressional testimony accusing his fellow troops of war crimes.
John O’Neill, a key organizer of the group, said the Swifties had to turn to something else after their May press conference didn’t spur any media scrutiny of Mr. Kerry. He said the veterans were inspired by a Vietnam prisoner of war who remembered using a secret code of taps to communicate with other POWs as a way of getting around the guards’ prohibition on talking.
“What we really had to do was devise our own tap code,” Mr. O’Neill said — and that meant forming a 527 and advertising on television, as well as writing a book and creating a Web site.
Another 527, the pro-Bush Progress for America Voter Fund, made the largest buy ever for a single commercial in October with “Ashley’s Story.”
The $16.5 million ad buy focused on a girl whose mother died in the September 11 terrorist attacks. She broke out of a years-long depression when she attended a rally for Mr. Bush earlier this year, where the president hugged her.
Polls showed that Republican ads or anti-Kerry ads dominated the election cycle. The Ashley ads and the Swifties ads were the most popular. The Bush campaign’s national security “wolves” ads came in third.
Brian McCabe, who heads the Progress for America Voter Fund, said the group produced the Ashley ad in June and “always knew we’d use it late during the cycle.”
After the ad began running, he said, the group raised another $6 million from donors who wanted to see it kept on the air. All told, the ad ran nearly 30,000 times.