Liberals Wary of 527 Reform

Posted May 3, 2005 at 6:31pm

Democrats are growing increasingly concerned that legislation aimed at curtailing the activities of largely unregulated 527 groups will cripple their voter registration and turnout efforts in the 2006 election and beyond.

Separate bills are moving through the House and Senate aimed at limiting the role of these outside advocacy organizations, which grew in power and influence following the passage of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act in 2002.

Although the efforts in both chambers have to date retained an air of bipartisanship, a number of Democrats active in the 527 community believe any bill passed by this Congress would have the practical effect of putting an end to the party’s get-out-the-vote efforts.

“It’d be a blow, no doubt about it,” said one Democratic strategist familiar with the soft-money efforts on the ideological left. “Every single Democrat in Congress thinking this is somehow good for America needs to stop for a second and consider the effect suppressed turnout will have on the causes and constituencies we care about.”

In the Senate, the primary vehicle for 527 reform is a bill sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.). The House has two competing bills: One is sponsored by Reps. Chris Shays (R-Conn.) and Marty Meehan (D-Mass.), the other by Reps. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) and Al Wynn (D-Md.).

The McCain/Feingold and Shays/Meehan bills are companion measures targeted at banning 527s from raising and spending soft money and subjecting them to the authority of the Federal Election Commission.

The Pence/Wynn bill seeks to empower the parties by lifting the $95,000 limit an individual can donate to them in a two-year cycle and erase the limits on how many coordinated dollars parties can spend on behalf of candidates.

The essence of the problem, according to a number of Democrats interviewed for this article, is that while Republicans have built a turnout machine within their party infrastructure, Democrats have largely relied on organized labor and more recently soft-money advocacy groups to get their voters to the polls.

“On the Republican side at this point they have a mobilized party,” said Steve Rosenthal, executive director of America Coming Together, the largest and perhaps most influential progressive 527 in the 2004 election.

“There are an array of groups on their side that are spending tens of millions on behalf of [House Majority Leader] Tom DeLay [R-Texas] and his allies,” Rosenthal added. “If there is going to be any balance, Democrats need to understand we are providing the [counter] to the Republican efforts.”

ACT, an organization formed by the leaders of the labor movement, the pro-abortion rights community and environmental advocates, raised more than $140 million last cycle, primarily in large soft-money contributions from organized labor and wealthy individuals.

Those donations were poured into a handful of battleground states to fund GOTV efforts in the 2004 election.

As a result, said Rosenthal, participation as a percentage of registered voters soared to its highest level since the 1968 presidential election.

One Democratic source pointed out that regardless of the outcome of the current 527 legislation, ACT will never be the financial powerhouse it was in 2004, however.

The reason is a regulation approved by the Federal Election Commission in August that forces any 527 group that also has a committee registered with the FEC to use hard dollars to pay for 50 percent of its overall expenses.

In the 2004 election, ACT spent $125 million from its soft-money account and just $15 million from its hard-money committee. That means roughly 90 percent of all ACT disbursements were paid for by unlimited, soft-dollar donations.

“It will take some time for any 527 to figure out how to get to [$140] million again,” the Democratic strategist said.

For his part, Rosenthal insisted that his organization will remain a vital player, noting that conversations are under way to build a six-year fundraising and infrastructure plan for ACT.

“Regardless of whatever comes down the pike, ACT intends to be a very strong organization for elections to come,” Rosenthal said.

Even if ACT manages to overcome the new restrictions, some of the smaller progressive interest groups could see their activities severely threatened by a curb on 527 activity relating to voter turnout.

The League of Conservation Voters, for example, used its 527 committee to fund turnout efforts in five states in the 2004 cycle.

In Colorado, LCV ran an integrated campaign featuring television ads, direct mail and door-knocking to drive turnout for now-Sen. Ken Salazar (D) and now-Rep. John Salazar (D).

The group recruited 18,000 volunteers and knocked on more than 1.3 million doors in that effort, according to Communications Director Chuck Porcari.

“It is ironic that there is an attempt to basically change the rules of the game when we are seeing the biggest increase in participatory democracy” in history, Porcari said.

The problem many Democrats see is that if the turnout efforts of ACT, LCV, Sierra Club, NARAL Pro-Choice America, EMILY’s List and other progressive groups are banned by Congress, there is no fallback solution in place.

“There is not a ‘Plan B’ yet because people have spent so much time working on this legislation,” acknowledged a Democratic insider close to the matter.

The source suggested one solution could be an empowering of state parties to handle turnout efforts since it is unlikely that donations to those groups will be targeted by the 527 legislation.

“Why does [turnout] need to be controlled from Washington?” the source asked.

Others were more skeptical about the possibility of state parties taking over GOTV efforts in national elections.

“It’s very difficult to believe that post-McCain/Feingold, either national or local parties will have the capacity to step into the breach,” one high-level Democratic strategist said.