NARAL Plans Big ’04 Effort

Posted May 7, 2003 at 6:30pm

By Chris Cillizza

Roll Call Staff

Seeking a larger platform for its issues in in the 2004 election cycle, NARAL Pro-Choice America has hired veteran Democratic operative Michael Meehan to oversee its vastly expanded soft-money operation.

Meehan — a top political adviser to Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) — will serve as vice president for politics, campaigns and strategy, essentially overseeing all of the organization’s political operations. Both the field and political directors at NARAL Pro-Choice America will report directly to him.

In addition to his advisory duties for Daschle, Meehan is coming off a stint as the message and polling director at the Democratic National Committee during the 2002 cycle.

Kate Michelman, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said Meehan’s hiring is “demonstrative of how important our political work is and how important the 2004 elections are.”

The first priority of the group will be the presidential race that currently features nine Democratic candidates (all of whom favor abortion rights). It hosted the first cattle call of the 2004 presidential race on Jan. 21.

It will also target high-profile Senate races with phone banks, direct-mail and, most importantly, issue advocacy ads, according to sources familiar with the strategic plan. NARAL will be involved in 15 states on both the presidential and Senate level.

“We intend to be on the ground and on the air in all of these states,” Michelman said.

“These moves signal that NARAL Pro-Choice America is in it to win it and wants to position itself as a major political player in the 2004 election,” added Jenny Backus, a consultant to the organization. Backus served as communications director at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee during the 2002 cycle.

In addition to Meehan, NARAL has added former DCCC Executive Director Howard Wolfson, now a partner in the Glover Park Group, and National Committee for an Effective Congress Washington Director Mark Gersh as consultants to its political operation. It has also had discussions with Donna Brazile, campaign manager for Al Gore’s 2000 presidential race, about a role in the revamped political team.

NARAL’s new aggressiveness on the political battlefield can be traced to its catbird seat in the ever-changing world of campaign finance reform.

It is a 501(c)4 organization with MCFL filing status, which refers to its categorization in the Internal Revenue Service Tax Code.

Groups filing as 501(c)4s can accept unlimited contributions from individuals — the so-called soft-money donations that national party committees had been banned from accepting under the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act — and do not have to disclose their donors.

A number of 501(c)4s have cropped up since BCRA passed last year.

Among the most notable are an organization led by former Clinton White House Chief of Staff John Podesta that will serve as a rapid-response communications operation for the Democratic Party, and the Rushmore Policy Council, a South Dakota-based group that has promised to “destroy” the career of Daschle.

The MCFL status that NARAL claims refers to a Supreme Court case in 1986 involving the Massachusetts Citizens for Life organization, which allowed 501(c)4 groups to engage in much more direct political advocacy if they took contributions only from individuals. The broader ruling limited the level of “express advocacy” 501(c)4 groups that accepted corporate and labor contributions could engage in.

NARAL and the League of Conservation Voters are the only two Washington-based organizations with this filing status, according to Michelman.

Meehan claimed that as a result, regardless of the final decision of the Supreme Court on BCRA, NARAL will be free to run issue advocacy advertising all the way up until election.

He noted that the group’s IRS designation gives it “tremendous growth potential to have greater impact in 2004 than it has had in past cycles.”

In 2002, NARAL spent between $3 million and $4 million through its political action committee and its 501(c)4.

In addition to these two existing fundraising entities, NARAL also established a 527 group late last month, which creates yet another soft-money conduit. The 527 can be more overtly political than the typical 501(c)4 but must reveal its donors to the IRS.

Michelman said NARAL is working at “an accelerated level in terms of fundraising.” She has already had preliminary meetings with donors to discuss the more aggressive strategy.

The organization is also planning to begin polling in its 15 targeted states — California and Washington, among others — over the coming weeks in order to “find out [what] people think of President Bush’s record on reproductive rights to date,” according to Michelman.

Meehan has close relationships with a number of key Members of the Democratic hierarchy including Daschle. He served as the South Dakota Senator’s political director in the 1998 and 2000 cycles.

Meehan also handled the communications operation for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the frontrunner for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, in 1996. Kerry defeated then-Gov. William Weld (R) 52 percent to 45 percent that year.