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Where is the GOP's George Soros? By: David Keene
The Hill | Wednesday, June 16, 2004


Back in 1980, the late Terry Dolan, chairman of the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC), asked me to head up an independent effort supporting Ronald Reagan’s campaign against President Jimmy Carter. Dolan felt he could raise substantial funds and quickly persuaded me to sign on.

Independent expenditures of the sort we planned were perfectly legal as long as we resisted the temptation to coordinate any of our activities with the official campaign. We spent nearly $3 million (a lot of money in those days) and like to think we helped Reagan drive Carter from the White House.

At about the same time, a number of establishment Republicans led by Rod Hills, who had served as President Ford’s counsel, launched a similar effort to be financed by raising big bucks not from activists but from more traditional givers within the business community. Their effort failed for many of the same reasons this year’s effort to match the Democrats in forming and raising money for the so-called “527” independent groups is running into trouble.

It didn’t take Fred Wertheimer, who headed Common Cause at the time, long to file Federal Election Commission complaint charging that the Hills effort was, in fact, something less than independent and therefore could not legally accept contributions for an independent-expenditure campaign. The charges were essentially baseless, but they had the desired impact: The money Hills and his friends were expecting never materialized.

I ran into Wertheimer at a party just after the charges were filed and asked him why Common Cause targeted Hills and ignored us. He told me quite candidly that he believed the charges alone — provable or not — would be enough to derail the Hills effort but that the kind of people we were relying on for our money probably couldn’t be as easily “scared off.”

Wertheimer was right. The ideological contributors we were counting on may not have had the deep pockets of Hills’s big givers, but they truly believed in Ronald Reagan and were ready to put their values and their money on the line regardless of what Common Cause might say.

The problem the organizers of Republican 527 groups face today is that there aren’t many Republican or conservative givers with the deep commitment of a Jane Fonda or the resources of a George Soros. Conservative true believers tend to give what they can, but that’s usually more like a hundred dollars than a million. By way of contrast, Soros, Progressive Insurance Corp. Chairman Peter Lewis and Hollywood’s Stephen Bing has each already given more than $7 million to liberal or Democratic 527s.

A lot of rich Republican-leaning business types out there would write sizeable individual and corporate checks to the party if they could, and many, many more would be willing to contribute a couple of thousand dollars to President Bush’s re-election campaign, but very are few willing to give big bucks to a conservative independent effort, even one organized by well-known fellow establishmentarians.

There are good reasons for that. Non-ideological contributors tend to be politically risk-averse. Giving to a party (or both parties) is safe; giving to a 527 might bring scrutiny and criticism. The GOP benefits from the activities of nonparty and non-sanctioned groups, but party leaders have never really appreciated or encouraged them.

Indeed, the leaders have tended to see the groups as competitors and have actively discouraged the party’s best supporters from contributing to the groups.

And, finally, few big GOP givers are ideological, self-motivated conservatives. There is no conservative George Soros, and it is virtually impossible to imagine three people giving anything like $7 million each to independent Republican or conservative organizations. Rich Democrats are often strong liberals; rich Republicans tend to be moderates.

A former GOP national chairman predicted last year that this would be a problem once McCain/Feingold became law. “If they can’t give to the party, their money is more likely to go to the Sierra Club and Common Cause than to the American Conservative Union or the National Rifle Association,” he said.

As a result, Democratic 527s are on track this year to raise and spend as much as $300 million to take out Bush, while their Republican counterparts will be lucky to raise 10 percent of that.

David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, is a managing associate with the Carmen Group, a D.C.-based governmental affairs firm.


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