Freedom's Watch: Right-wing juggernaut?
by Bill Berkowitz
Funded by wealthy Republican Party donors and former White House officials, the group may be accomplishing less than it claims
The hiring of Carl Forti, the former political director for former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney's failed presidential run and hardball flinging spokesperson for the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), appeared to signal that Freedom's Watch is getting ready to gear up for Election 2008. However, will recent defections from the group, and reported questions about the actual existence of the $250 million war chest that Freedom's Watch's leaders have boasted about, slow its operation down?
On top of these questions, two well-connected conservative insiders, commenting on the condition of anonymity, raised their own questions about whether Freedom's Watch's rhetoric might be outpacing its actual accomplishments.
In late March, Freedom's Watch (website), the group founded by former White House staffers and funded by a host of very wealthy longtime Republican donors, announced that Forti, one of the GOP's premier hatchet men, will serve as its Executive Vice President and head up "the group's issue advocacy campaign in the fall."
Earlier in the month, Bradley Blakeman, a co-founder of Freedom's Watch and a former deputy assistant to Bush, stepped down as president of the organization. Blakeman's departure came soon after he sent out an email fundraising appeal which in part claimed that Freedom's Watch was "the only group capable of going toe-to-toe with George Soros and this Left-Wing juggernaut."
Blakeman boasted of Freedom's Watch's victory over MoveOn.org, allegedly beating them "at their own game (taking down The New York Times in the process!). In fact, we've been so successful that former Bill Clinton adviser James Carville proclaimed Freedom's Watch a grave danger to the Left's radical agenda. We'll take that as a compliment."
Will the group's fundraising efforts suck up money that would otherwise have gone to other conservative grassroots groups? It seems odd that Freedom's Watch would try to raise small amounts of money via e-mail -- after all, the group doesn't have anywhere near the mail list of an organization like MoveOn.org -- when it supposedly already has amassed $250 million in its coffers. Perhaps Freedom's Watch co-founder and big money man, Sheldon Adelson, has not yet cut the check.
Blakeman's departure followed on the heels of the earlier resignations of Matt S. David, the group's communications director and a former McCain campaign hand who left to join the administration of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Robert Terra, another former McCain aide who had signed up to work with Freedom's Watch.
"What those departures mean for a group expected to serve as the main vehicle for conservative spending in the coming election, is not immediately clear," the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza observed in early March.
Banking on Forti
Between 2004 and 2006, Carl Forti was communications director at the National Republican Congressional Committee where, the New York Times reported, "he oversaw the committee's independent expenditures."
"Carl is a seasoned political operative with a broad and deep understanding of the policy issues that shape political dynamics both nationally and locally," the Freedom's Watch Board of Directors said in a statement. "Carl will play an integral role in this organization as we move to impact critical public policy issues that will be debated this year."
Forti called the position "an important job in an important cycle." The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza reported that when he was "asked about the goals for the organization, Forti said only his aim was 'to educate people about issues important to them and their neighbors.'"
"Under Forti's direction, the NRCC's ad campaigns were called 'the worst offenders in stretching the truth', 'the very definition of political mudslinging,' and 'misleading at best, demonstrably false at worst,'" Bruce Wilson, the co-founder of Talk to Action, a blog tracking the Religious Right, told Media Transparency in an e-mail.
"Forti is the guy who approved the infamous ad suggesting that Mike Arcuri used phone sex lines because he dialed a wrong number," Wilson pointed out. "Even Republicans came out after the election to denounce the NRCC's attack ads."
The Carpetbagger Report noted that the Annenberg Political Fact Check, which is nonpartisan and scrutinizes campaign ads, said the NRCC ads that Forti oversaw "stood out" for "the sheer volume of assaults on the personal character of Democratic House challengers."
Reid Wilson, an associate editor and writer for RealClearPolitics, recently wrote that Forti will hook up with several "other prominent former Hill staffers including spokesman Ed Patru, who served as communications director for the House Republican Conference, and Joe Eule, the former chief of staff to ex-Arizona Rep. J.D. Hayworth, as well as Mike Leavitt, until last July the political director for John McCain's presidential campaign."
Still working the "surge"
According to a report posted on March 24 at the Washington Post's "Channel '08: The Election on Video," Freedom's Watch has posted an online-only video that "features [General] Petraeus-friendly video clips and articles, and urges supporters to support him when he appears before Congress" in April.
"Freedom's Watch was launched as a pro-surge lobby last August, and Sen. John McCain -- the pro-surge candidate -- Bush, Freedom's Watch and Petraeus are all on the same page regarding the war in Iraq and I doubt that will change," John Stauber, executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, told Media Transparency.
McCain's campaign will undoubtedly be boosted by Freedom's Watch's bankroll. "As McCain indicated, he is willing to live or die politically based on his advocacy for a military victory in Iraq," Stauber added. "If Iraq is out of the press in November and the surge appears to be working, McCain has a chance. If Iraq is in flames in November, McCain is probably sunk."
Developing plans for November
Freedom's Watch, founded just one year ago, has pledged to spend close to $250 million during the coming election cycle. The organization made its first foray into the political arena in August 2007 with a splashy $15 million advertising campaign in support of President Bush's troop escalation, euphemistically called a "surge." While support for the escalation has been the group's most public effort, it has also been advocating for the Bush Administration to take a more militant position regarding Iran, and running a series of anti-immigrant advertisements during a special election in Ohio in support of Republican Robert Latta, who won the House seat representing the district around Bowling Green, Ohio.
Somewhat surprisingly, however, Freedom's Watch was evidently nowhere to be found during the recent special Illinois congressional election to replace former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who quit halfway through his term. "If Freedom's Watch is supposed to be acting as the cavalry, all I can say is the cavalry didn't show up," said one GOP strategist.
According to Reid Wilson, "Hastert's chosen successor, businessman Jim Oberweis, lost a closely-fought and very expensive race to Democrat Bill Foster, a political neophyte who nonetheless benefited, to some extent, from running on Barack Obama's coattails. Both national parties poured more than a million dollars into the race, while Foster benefited from outside investments from the AFL-CIO and the Service Employees' union."
"We made a strategic decision not to get involved," said Patru, Freedom's Watch spokesman.
As a 501(c)(4) organization, it is "bound neither by limits on how much their donors can give nor by disclosure rules forcing them to report who gives them money," Reid Wilson reported. "No decision about an operating budget has been made, and Patru dismissed earlier reports of budgets within a certain range. 'This town is full of rumor and innuendo and speculation. There are a lot of people in this town who think they are privy to strategy,' he said. 'We made a conscious decision not to broadcast our strategy. It doesn't make any sense to do that. The only thing that you have out there is speculation.'"
Another 'rootless organization'
Not all conservatives are enamored with Freedom's Watch's activities. Two longtime conservative activists spoke to Media Transparency about the organization on the condition of anonymity.
One told Media Transparency in an e-mail that Freedom's Watch "is the latest in the series of rootless organizations built to capitalize on the Republican agenda." It "no doubt will raise and spend a lot of money and much of it will go the PR company that organized it and for which they are a front."
He pointed out that "It will house Republican operatives who have no desire to connect to existing grassroots organizations except to suck the money away from them and tell them that they have occupied the field. They raise money to create the illusion of grassroots activity without having to associate with those who what they do for cause rather than profit."
Although he wasn't certain which PR group, or groups, were working with Freedom's Watch, he described the process: "There are a number of public affairs companies in town that live off ad campaigns. What they will do is build the shell of a grassroots organization and will then trumpet its goal of raising big money and spend it. They then do raise money and contract to spend it with the PR firm that set them up. Often the employees of the PR firm will lead the organization."
While claiming to "have had no personal contact" with the group, "and has no ax to grind," he "admit[ed] to disgust with these profiteers."
Another conservative insider, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, told Media Transparency in a telephone interview that Freedom's Watch could play a very positive role in the upcoming elections. "If the left is really going to drop $350 million, then Freedom's Watch $250 million will be an important piece of a bigger puzzle for conservative," the conservative leader said.
However, he too levied some criticism: "My only real hesitation is if they go out and present themselves as the conservative movement's answer to MoveOn.org, which they aren't. They shouldn't think that they are so blooming big and so blooming important."
Freedom's Watch's leaders appear to be "very comfortable saying that they are the best of the movement. Some people have said that they are bragging a lot for not having done much."