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The Battle Hymn of the Republicans

How Dick Scaife and a campaign-finance loophole, are helping to heat up a Specter-Toomey race

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So this is how Republicans feel when they watch our primaries.

 

Usually in these weeks before the spring primary, Democratic candidates for public office are beating the tar out of each other in TV ads and news stories. Meanwhile, the lone Republican nominee has already been chosen -- in dark GOP rituals that involve sheep entrails and goat masks -- and serenely cruises to an unopposed victory.

 

This year, things are different. Every time you turn on your TV you see two Republicans snarling at each other in the state's highest-profile race: U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter's re-election bid against arch-conservative challenger Congressman Pat Toomey. Now Democrats get to watch the other party tear itself apart, while our presumptive nominee, Congressman Joe Hoeffel, waits for November. Just give us rich parents, and a break on inheritance taxes when they croak, and the role-reversal will be complete.

 

Yet there's something going on just behind the scenes that makes me long for the good old days of entrails and goat masks.

 

On the surface, this race should be no contest: With a campaign fundraising total of nearly $11.5 million, 23-year-incumbent Specter has raised four times as much money as his rival. But Toomey is running a spirited campaign, and seems to have a deft touch for having it both ways. His campaign bio boasts that "his father was a union worker," while his Web site faults Specter for having too much union support. Specter is deeply unpopular with hard-core conservatives who see him as unprincipled, liberal, and driven by private ambition. (One commentator suggested that Specter "would drive over his own grandmother" to win re-election. Apparently, this is not something Republicans support, although tinkering with Nana's Social Security benefits is apparently more palatable.)

 

Toomey's got an extra edge in this race as well, and it's not just a massive forehead that suggests he has the power to control men's actions from a distance. One of his principal allies is funding many of the recent TV ads attacking Specter: the "Club for Growth," which is backed by a foundation tied to Pittsburgh Tribune-Review publisher Richard Mellon Scaife.

 

The Club for Growth is a "527 Committee," named after a provision in the federal tax code that grants tax-exempt status to political advocacy groups who run "issue" ads, provided the ads stop just short of explicitly endorsing candidates.

 

And I do mean just short. One Club for Growth ad, for example, suggested that Specter voted the same way as Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry 70 percent of the time, a record which allegedly makes Specter "100 percent too liberal." (Specter's people have countered by noting that Kerry voted with George Bush 72 percent of the time, which clearly doesn't prove the president is a liberal.) Another Club ad depicts Specter as a grinning jack-in-the-box.

 

A candidate might be afraid to launch such attacks in post-9/11 America: The last statewide candidate who went negative in Pennsylvania, Republican gubernatorial candidate Mike Fisher, was probably hurt as much as helped by his attacks on Democrat Ed Rendell during the 2002 campaign. A 527 committee, however, can lob all the bombs it wants while keeping its champion above the fray.

 

Such groups have become even more important since the McCain/Feingold campaign-finance reforms of 2002 limited the amount of "soft money" a political party can spend on a candidate's behalf. Now donors with no place to spend their cash can contribute to 527s instead. Many of them, it seems, make their checks out to the Club for Growth: According to Federal Elections Commission data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, it is the fifth largest such organization in the country.

 

Among the club's top 10 contributors is the Sarah Scaife Foundation, a grant-making groups controlled by Richard Mellon Scaife which has contributed $75,000 to the Club for Growth. (Another local Club supporter is US Steel head Tom Usher, who gave the organization $10,000 last summer.) Scaife and his wife Ritchie have also given Toomey $2,000 each, the maximum amount federal law allows individuals to contribute to a federal candidate.

 

Scaife's contributions nicely illustrate how 527s provide a loophole for big-dollar donors. But thousand-dollar sums are not all the Scaifes can contribute to the cause. The Trib's editorial page has long been unsparing in its criticism of Specter: One typically restrained editorial headline called him a "Desperate Coward." But Scaife's not the only guy putting his money where his mouthpiece is. Another staunch Toomey supporter is Thomas Rhodes, the president of conservative house organ the National Review, which recently ran a cover story blaring that Specter is the "worst Republican Senator."

 

Rhodes has supported the Club for Growth with a $5,000 contribution of his own, and Club for Growth President Steven Moore appears as a source in the National Review's articles. (A Toomey victory, Moore recently told the magazine, "would be a way for conservatives to express their frustration with the direction the Republican Party has gone, especially on big-government issues.") He's appeared in the Tribune-Review's editorial page at least once as well, though neither publication discloses that their executives help fund his organization.

 

Not exactly a vast right-wing conspiracy; Moore is also a senior member of the conservative Cato Institute and might have appeared in their pages anyway. But it's certainly a chummy relationship.

 

Conservatives don't have a monopoly on these tactics: One of the few 527s with more money than the Club for Growth has been airing televised swipes at George W. Bush. But if the Specter/Toomey race is any indication, the campaign-finance reforms of recent years haven't reduced the influence of money on politics: They've just made that influence more insidious and pervasive. The reforms have birthed a crop of non-profits able to launch even more partisan political attacks than the candidates themselves might attempt...all while an ever-more partisan press treats them like independent observers.

 

No matter who wins, Specter/Toomey may be to 21st century politics what the Spanish Civil War was to 20th century combat -- a testing ground for the weaponry to be used in future battles. Just as in Spain, the far right appears to be mastering the tactics more quickly than its rivals.

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