Far-off, grass-roots PACs lift Mass. challengers

Nev. group aims to unseat Frank

By Farah Stockman and Donovan Slack
Globe Staff / October 29, 2010

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WASHINGTON — Roger Stockton has never set foot in Massachusetts. But the 49-year-old firefighter from Carson City, Nev., has become a player in the campaign to unseat Barney Frank.

Stockton and his son, a manager at a sporting goods store, founded Western Representation, a political action committee, around their kitchen table in 2008. So far they have raised $320,000, 40 percent of which they intend to spend in Massachusetts, making it one of the biggest funders of independent ads against Frank, the Newton Democrat.

“We have had the accusations that there is some shadowy group funding us,’’ Stockton said in a telephone interview. “That’s not true in our case. Our average donation is less than $50.’’

So far in this big-spending congressional campaign season, attention has focused on out-of-state groups affiliated with political operatives using unlimited anonymous donations allowed by a recent Supreme Court ruling. But smaller mom-and-pop political action committees like Stockton’s — which report their donors and abide by federally set limits of $5,000 per donor — say they are the true center of this year’s conservative uprising.

In the primaries, the groups helped insurgent Tea-Party-backed candidates across state lines vanquish established Republicans. Many of these groups disdain well-connected organizations flush with anonymous donations, and they object to a GOP strategy that throws millions of dollars only into races deemed winnable.

Instead, these groups in the general elections are focusing on either targeting specific Democrats or helping candidates they believe are purer conservative voices.

In Massachusetts, businessman Sean Bielat, Frank’s Republican challenger, has been the biggest beneficiary of these groups.

Frank, an unabashed liberal, is also a target for out-of-state fiscal conservatives because he heads the House Financial Services Committee, which oversaw Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the recipients of billion-dollar bailouts from the government. He also played a key role in passing the TARP legislation that aided foundering banks.

These new grassroots PACs are part of the Tea Party phenomenon, said Bill Allison, editorial director of the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes government transparency.

“They are bringing new people in,’’ Allison said. “It will be interesting to see if they are still around in 2012. Will they be co-opted by the Republicans? Or will these groups end up co-opting the Republican Party?’’

Another group attracted to the Frank-Bielat race is One Nation PAC, formed by Kelly Eustis, a 23-year-old from Argyle, N.Y. It raised $213,000 to support candidates in 20 House and Senate races, including Christine O’Donnell in Delaware. The PAC recently began helping Bielat with donations and e-mail blasts.

Eustis, who had served as political director of a Tea Party PAC, said he decided to form his own after becoming disenchanted with how old-style Republicans strategists were trying to take over the Tea Party movement.

“I don’t want those people in the movement,’’ he said.

There is no way to know how many kitchen-table PACs have formed. Federal Election Commission statistics show the number of political action committees that are not connected to a trade union or a corporation has risen to more than 1,570 nationwide, up from 951 a decade ago. But it is hard to tell how many of the unconnected groups are grassroots organizations.

Still, the FEC database is full of disclosures from tiny groups that have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars each for elections, including some outside their states. These groups’ willingness to back candidates who are down in the polls has made them influential in places the Republican establishment has avoided.

Massachusetts is a prime example. The only Bay State congressional race that has attracted the attention of the American Action Networka national heavyweight in fund-raising for conservative candidates is Cape Cod’s hotly contested 10th District, which has been left open as Democrat William Delahunt retires. American Action, which shares a Washington office with a group that has ties to Republican strategist Karl Rove, has bought $850,000 worth of ads attacking Democratic candidate William Keating. Because American Action is set up as a nonprofit, it does not have to reveal donors to the public.

But American Action has not spent money opposing Frank, since his seat has been considered safe. That has made Western Representation “one of the bigger players,’’ Allison said.

It has spent more money than any other independent group on ads in the Fourth District: $73,788, more than half of the $114,508 that has been spent by groups that aren’t connected to a candidate, federal data show.

Frank was not Western Representation’s original target. Stockton and his son, Dustin, formed the PAC on Christmas Eve, weeks after Obama’s election, to try to take down Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in Nevada. With no political experience, they launched an e-mail campaign and collected small donations from across the country. They didn’t take a salary, although last month they hired a Tea Party activist, 27-year-old Bryan Shroyer, as executive director.

After their candidate, Sharron Angle, won an upset victory in the GOP primary, the Stocktons began receiving e-mails from around the country that persuaded them to take on Frank.

Frank’s spokesman, Harry Gural, last week called Western Representation a “shadowy group’’ and painted it with the same broad brush as American Action Network.

But Western Representation’s sources of funding are available on the FEC website. A Globe search found that most checks anything over $200 is recorded were written by people living in the southern and western states. The largest donor in recent records was the owner of a media company in Guam, who gave $7,500. Since his donation exceeds the $5,000 federal limit, Western Representation said they would refund him $2,500.

Lisa Barstow, a spokeswoman for Bielat’s campaign, said the candidate welcomed the outside help, adding that Frank also receives many donations from out-of-state.

Shroyer acknowledges the group has few ties to Massachusetts. He said he spent two weeks there and met with dozens of supporters who encouraged the group to also fund Marty Lamb, the Republican challenger to Worcester Democrat James McGovern. Western Representation gave Lamb $2,500 and paid for a radio ad that portrays McGovern as a dangerous radical, using a quote that McGovern has said was taken out of context.

Stockton said he stands by the ad.

But he said the important point is that voters can discern who funded it. He criticized organizations such as American Action Network that don’t disclose their donors to the public.

“We could have formed a corporation to collect unlimited funds and sidestep all the reporting requirements,’’ he said. “But then there is no accountability of who is giving money and who is behind this stuff.’’

Stockton acknowledges that the group has gotten some angry letters from people asking why he is trying to influence an election taking place nearly 3,000 miles away.

“We are not asking the people of Massachusetts to elect anybody that they don’t feel will represent them,’’ he said. “But on the same note, we feel that the senator of Nevada makes votes that impact people of Massachusetts, just as the senator from Massachusetts or a congressman from Massachusetts makes votes that would impact the people of Nevada.’’

At the end of the day, it’s democracy, he said.