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Freedom's Watch smearing candidates with robocalls

Freedom's Watch smearing Democratic Congressional candidates with false robo-calls


By Bill Berkowitz

'Shady soft money group' going after Senate and House seats

Early last month the Republican lobbying group Freedom's Watch (FW) launched a series of television and radio advertisements criticizing congressional Democrats for going on vacation instead of staying in Washington and dealing with energy legislation. One ad urged supporters to "Tell Mark Udall," the Colorado Democratic Congressman now running for a Senate seat, "to show up to work and start fixing Colorado's energy crisis."

Freedom's Watch, which made its first public appearance with a $15 million radio and television advertising campaign aimed at maintaining Congressional support for President Bush's Iraq troop "surge" [escalation] just prior to General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker's Congressional appearances in late-August 2007, is now attacking Democrats in a number of House and Senate campaigns.

Tony Feather, a veteran of past GOP campaigns, recently signed on "to run" Freedom's Watch's "new Senate-focused wing," the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza recently reported. Feather, who will oversee the group's work in a number of Senate contests, was "intimately involved in the founding of Progress for America, a 527 group aligned with Republicans that spent millions on advertisements during the 2004 presidential election," the newspaper reported. Feather is a partner in Feather, Larson & Synhorst, "a do-it-all Republican consulting firm with strong ties to the Bush team."

In addition to its new focus on a handful of Senate seats, Freedom's Watch is commissioning misleading or false robo-calls in dozens of Congressional races. The House campaign is being led by Carl Forti, the former communications director at the National Republican Congressional Committee. In early July, PolitickerOH.com reported that FW was running advertisements / robo calls "against nine state lawmakers in eight different states." According to Kyle Kutuchief, writing for The Point, the organization "has been making robo-calls into the 16th Congressional District falsely attacking Democratic Candidate John Boccieri for voting for a gas tax in the State of Ohio in 2003." The gist of the call, courtesy of PolitickerOH.com:

"Hi, this is an emergency gas price alert from Freedom's Watch. Did you know Ohio gas taxes add more than 28 cents to every gallon of gas? 28 cents! What is John Boccieri doing to address the issue? Nothing. If we can't depend on John Boccieri to stand up for us today, when can we count on him?"

PolitickerNJ.com's Alex Isenstadt recently reported that "Two Democratic state lawmakers running for Congress [Assemblywoman Linda Stender and Sen. John Adler were] being targeted by a new series of [Freedoms Watch] robocalls about gas prices":

"Hi, this is an emergency gas price alert from Freedom's Watch. Did you know New Jersey gas taxes add more than 14 cents to every gallon of gas? 14 cents!"

The call then asks what Stender and Adler are doing to address the issue. "Nothing," the announcer says.

"If we can't depend on Linda Stender to stand up for us today, when can we count on her?" asks the call targeting Stender.

Other targets, Isenstatdt reported, are Alabama state Sen. Parker Griffith, Nevada state Sen. Dina Titus, Kentucky state Sen. David Boswell, Illinois state Sen. Debbie Halvorson, Oregon state Sen. Kurt Schrader, Ohio state Rep. Steve Driehaus, and Ohio's state Sen. John Boccieri.

According to Isenstadt, "Ed Patru, a spokesman for Freedom's Watch, declined to specify how much the group was spending on the calls."

According to PolitickerNV.com, Freedoms Watch's radio ads "are targeting 7th Congressional District candidate Mark Schauer, Ohio 15th Congressional District candidate Mary Jo Kilroy, Idaho 1st Congressional District Candidate Walt Minnick, Missouri 6th Congressional District candidate Kay Barnes, New York 29th Congressional District candidate Eric Massa, New Mexico 1st Congressional District candidate Martin Heinrich, Ohio 16th Congressional District candidate John Boccieri, U.S. Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D-N.H.), U.S. Rep. Chris Carney (D-Pa.) and U.S. Rep. Don Cazayoux (D-La.).

The 60-second robo-call against Cazayoux begins with the announcer saying:

"70 percent of Americans are in favor of exploring for offshore oil. But new Congressman Don Cazayoux has opposed efforts to increase domestic energy production 10 times. No wonder he's endorsed by a liberal special interest group that favors high gas prices..."

"Two years ago the Democrats said they had a plan to lower gas prices. But nothing's been done ...And Cazayoux? Instead of staying in Washington to fix the problem, he was the deciding vote to send the House on a five-week recess. In Washington, Cazayoux was beholden to Nancy Pelosi and the liberal DC special interests. But when he goes back home, he sings a different tune."

In response, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has turned its attention toward Freedom's Watch; the DCCC recently launched a website called "The Real Freedom's Watch," which takes on the organization, and one of its principle funders, Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire Las Vegas casino magnate. The DCCC site, launched on August 1, calls Freedom's Watch the "biggest threat" to congressional candidates this election season, and it labels the organization a "shady soft money group."

According to Business Week, on the DCCC site, "and in a complaint to the Federal Election Commission filed in April, the DCCC accuse[d] the group of improperly coordinating its advertising with the National Republican Congressional Committee."

Earlier this year, with aspirations of becoming the conservative movement's answer to MoveOn.org, organization spokespersons boasted that it would raise some $250 million for Election 2008. However, a series of internal changes has plagued the group, and it appears to have had some difficulty reaching that particular financial goal.

Nevertheless, as Thomas B. Edsall recently reported at the Huffington Post that "One of the best kept secrets of the current election cycle is the amount of money casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson has invested in a pro-Republican advocacy organization called Freedom's Watch."

Adelson was one of the two major Funding Fathers of the organization. While "officials" of the group

"...are interpreting an obscure Federal Election Commission regulation issued last December 26th in such a way as to permit non-disclosure of all of Adelson's contributions made since the day that regulation was issued ... a Huffington Post examination of the scope of the FEC ruling and of Adelson's active involvement in the spending decisions of Freedom's Watch suggests, however, that Adelson's contributions should be fully disclosed." Edsall pointed out that the FEC disclosure rule "is designed to protect the individual identity of passive contributors -- such as dues-paying union members -- but not the identity of donors of $1,000 or more whose gifts are aimed specifically at furthering an incorporated advocacy group's electioneering communications.'"

According to its website, Freedom's Watch is a 501 (c) (4) nonprofit corporation. It can lobby on issues, but cannot expressly advocate for specific candidates. The organization describes itself as "dedicated to fighting to protect the ideals and issues that keep America strong and prosperous," and "rallying together" to "bring the focus back to the real threats to our nation," "Fight back against the policies that are corrupting America's ability to protect our citizens, our economy, and our way of life," and "Reprioritize our legislative agenda to protect America's core values."

"Ideologically, we are inspired by much of Ronald Reagan's thinking -- peace through strength, protect and defend America, and prosperity through free enterprise," Freedom's Watch's co-founder and spokesperson Ari Fleischer, the former White House press secretary to President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2003, has stated.

*************

Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His column "Conservative Watch" documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the U.S. Right.

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