Outside groups fund attack ads

By Brian C. Mooney
Globe Staff / January 14, 2010

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Outside interest groups are springing up on a daily basis to dump huge sums of money into the US Senate race, funding negative television ads that seek to tip the race in its closing hours.

Massachusetts has become ground zero in the struggle over a national health care overhaul pending in Congress, and groups on both sides of the issue have emerged to blast mostly negative ads at the relatively small electorate that will decide the election Tuesday. Total spending on advertising in the final nine days by the major-party candidates, Democrat Martha Coakley and Republican Scott Brown, and their allies could approach $3 million, which is an astounding figure for a Bay State election.

The saturation ad buys are most apparent in time slots adjacent to local news programs or in morning programs on the networks. For instance, viewers of ABC’s “Good Morning America’’ in the Boston market would have seen at least a dozen Senate campaign spots yesterday, most of them entirely negative, during the two-hour program on the local affiliate, WCVB-TV.

Today, at least 11 spots are scheduled, and tomorrow there will be at least 13, a review of the station’s public files of political ads reveals.

Spots attacking Brown often run back to back, as the Democratic state and national parties and outside groups backing Coakley, such as the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), attempt to halt the Republican’s surge in the polls and in fund-raising, in a race for the seat held by Edward M. Kennedy for nearly 47 years, once thought to be impregnable to Republican challengers.

Brown’s declaration that he would be the Republicans’ 41st vote to kill the health care bill in the Senate nationalized the race almost overnight.

“It’s a goal-line stand for the Democrats,’’ said Ray La Raja, professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “The stakes are so high now, with this being the 60th seat the Democrats need. . . . They’re scared out of their minds. President Obama doesn’t want this to be a referendum on his health care policy, especially in Massachusetts, which has the archetypal policies he’s trying to use in Washington.’’

What was supposed to be a cakewalk is suddenly a strain on the party treasury, draining funds that otherwise would have been available to defend vulnerable Democratic seats this fall.

At the national and state level, the Democratic Party will expend the maximum $880,000 allowed in coordination with the campaign of Coakley, state party chairman John Walsh said yesterday.

“There’s a recognition that this race is engaged and we need to take it seriously,’’ he said. “People are willing to take a second look at who this Scott Brown guy is.’’

The state party and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, an arm of the national party, have launched harsh, hyperbolic attack ads aimed at Brown, a state senator from Wrentham.

On Tuesday, Coakley was also featured on a blast of automated calls paid for by the Democratic National Committee.

Each day draws a new organization from outside Massachusetts into the fray. The flurry began late last week, when a conservative nonprofit group, the American Future Fund, took out $400,000 worth of television ads trying to brand Coakley as a tax-raiser.

On Tuesday, the US Chamber of Commerce, a major opponent of the Democratic health care bill, weighed in with ads supporting Brown. A chamber spokesman, J.P. Fielder, said it is “a substantial buy’’ on television and radio but declined to say how much the business group is spending. The amount will be included in a report filed with the Federal Election Commission, possibly today, he said.

Americans for Responsible Health Care - a 527 political advocacy group, so called because of the section of the Internal Revenue Service code under which such groups operate - began airing two spots yesterday at a cost of more than $200,000 urging the election of Brown and the defeat of the health care bill in Washington.

The SEIU, a major backer of Coakley and health care overhaul, launched a $685,000 ad campaign featuring a negative spot that attempts to link Brown to the GOP’s former vice presidential nominee, Sarah Palin.

The union’s largest local, 1199, filed a report yesterday with the FEC stating it expended $74,250 Monday for “robocalls’’ on behalf of Coakley.

The 527 group supporting Brown is funded entirely by Parker Collier of Naples, Fla., a friend of New Hampshire businessman and US Senate candidate Bill Binnie, said its spokesman, Jeff Cohen. Binnie is featured in both ads.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee contended yesterday that the group is illegal because federal law prohibits congressional candidates from organizing 527s.

Today, a Democratic 527 group called Citizens for Strength and Security, with an address in Washington, will begin airing ads, according to WCVB-TV’s files. The group, founded in 2008, is known for running negative spots, and reports filed with the IRS last year showed it was funded primarily by the Communication Workers of America and SEIU.

“We haven’t seen this before in Massachusetts, because we haven’t had a competitive Senate race since 1996,’’ said Robert Boatright, a Clark University professor of government with a focus on campaign finance issues. The proliferation of well-funded interest groups and the effect of the Internet has changed the dynamic since then, he said.

“If candidates can capitalize on current events, they can raise money on the Internet and use it tomorrow,’’ Boatright said. “That creates a lot more volatility in terms of how quickly races can become competitive.’’