In the latest example of do-gooders using big money to fight big money, a super PAC is advising candidates how to rebuff super PAC attacks and how to score political points by assailing unrestricted campaign spending.
The Friends of Democracy super PAC has also stepped up its campaign to oust eight House Republicans who its organizers argue are especially beholden to special interest donors. The group was co-founded and is heavily backed by Jonathan Soros, son of billionaire George Soros, and the super PAC expects to spend $2 million to $3 million in this election cycle.
"We are using the appropriate vehicle, but we understand that it's kind of ironic to fight the issue of money in politics with a super PAC," said David Donnelly, who co-directs Friends of Democracy with Ilyse Hogue, whose previous posts include director of political advocacy and communications for MoveOn.org. Donnelly is executive director of the Public Campaign Action Fund, a nonprofit that backs public financing and that has given in-kind backing to Friends of Democracy.
Launched in April, Friends of Democracy is a "hybrid" PAC, housing an unrestricted super PAC and a conventional PAC under the same umbrella. The group unleashed $700,000 worth of ads in August that attacked four House Republicans, including Reps. Charles Bass (N.H.) and Dan Lungren (Cali.), with the message: "Corporate lobbyists have your Congressman's full attention."
The group plans to go after Bass, Lungren and six other GOP House incumbents with direct mail, phone banks and online ads. One direct-mail piece targeting Rep. Nan Hayworth (N.Y.) and her attendance at a Florida fundraiser features a fake "Greetings From Florida" postcard with the handwritten message: "So glad I made it down here to pal around with my lobbyist and big donor buddies. Wish you had the cash to buy some influence too. - Nan."
The other targeted Republicans are Reps. Ann Marie Buerkle (N.Y.), Francisco "Quico" Canseco (Texas), Jim Renacci (Ohio), Mary Bono Mack (Cali.) and David Rivera (Fla.).
"How ironic," Hayworth campaign spokesman Michael Knowles said. "They only criticize Republican big money, I've noticed. Their own big money is different." He said the attacks on Hayworth, who faces a strong challenge from Democrat Sean Patrick Maloney, belie her "center-right stances representing a center-right district."
The bigger challenge for Friends of Democracy may be that attacks on big money, which Democrats sought to leverage as a core campaign issue in 2010, have a history of falling flat. Much as polls reflect record-low public opinion of Congress, voters appear to blame both parties equally.
And while GOP-friendly super PACs have far outraised their Democratic counterparts in this election cycle, Democrats have recently stepped up their big money fundraising. George Soros, for one, has committed $1 million to Priorities USA Action, the main super PAC backing President Barack Obama, the New York Times reported today.
Donnelly said Friends of Democracy is pioneering a different tack by linking campaign donations to issues that candidates care about, such as health care, oil industry subsidies and banking regulations. The group's latest project is a briefing book on "Connecting With Voters on Money in Politics."
The book will be distributed to every candidate in the country, Donnelly said. Friends of Democracy has also set out to work closely with about two dozen candidates that it can hold up as "champions" of getting big money out of politics. The briefing book gives candidates talking points, sample press releases, useful statistics and proposed policy reforms, such as "citizen-led elections" that would match small donations with public funding.
"It's not just: Let's beat the bad guys," Donnelly said. "It's also: Let's elevate the champions."
As Democrats, in particular, brace themselves for a barrage attack ads from such well-funded GOP super PACs as American Crossroads and the Congressional Leadership Fund, the most eagerly read section of the briefing book may be its advice on "What to Do" when you're attacked by a super PAC.
The book lays out the following scenario: "Your campaign is attacked by a shadowy group called Americans for Freedom in a $500,000 television ad buy running for two weeks throughout the district." The book's advice: "Don't debate Americans for Freedom. Criticize your opponent."
For Bass, Hayworth, Lungren and other Republicans targeted by Friends of Democracy, it's advice that might come in handy.
Correction: Sept. 27, 2012
An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to American Action Network. It is a nonprofit.