Issue Ad Watch

Published — September 21, 2000 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

Outside groups push pedal to the metal In Michigan race


The Sierra Club is distributing campaign items attacking Senator Spencer Abraham in the form of a “campaign contribution,” above, and his “environmental batting average,” below.

With 33 seats up for grabs in the U.S. Senate in November and the Republicans clinging to a majority of only five, outside groups are pumping large sums into close races. The Michigan U.S. Senate contest between Republican incumbent Spencer Abraham and his Democratic opponent, Representative Debbie Stabenow of Michigan’s Eighth District in Lansing, is proving a hotbed for moneyed interest groups.

Those groups don’t have to disclose the specific amounts they spend on issue advocacy, but the Center estimates that so far, interest groups have spent $2 million on behalf of the incumbent, and $1.6 million for Stabenow’s campaign. Most voters don’t understand that groups not associated with the candidates are running these ads through well-planned and researched tactics, expensive campaigns and multi-media tools polished to reach targeted voting populations.

Sometimes the candidates themselves don’t know who is spending money, or don’t appreciate the effect of the outside influence. Stabenow said this spring that outside ads are “polluting this state. I think people are tired of them already.” Joe McMonigle, Abrahams campaign manager said in the Detroit Free Press: “Expect more of it (outside ads). Michigan is a battleground state. You’ll see a lot of outside groups from both sides coming in. Its something neither side has any control over.”

The following is a list of all the interest groups the Center has documented as active in Michigan’s Senate race:

Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington, D.C.-based issue group organized in 1979, has aggressively attacked Abrahams record of reducing restrictions on legal immigration as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration.

Running about $1 million worth of television, print and radio ads since March, the group claims that Abraham is threatening the United States by giving jobs to foreigners. One pointed ad asks the viewer to call Abraham and ask “how he would feel if voters gave his job away on election day just as he was giving American jobs away.”

Dan Stein, executive director of the group, insists he is interested in legislation and not electioneering. And while the news media and Abraham have contended that FAIR is somehow in cahoots with the Democrats, Stein denies contact with Stabenow or with party leadership. “Our ads are not timed for the election, but they are to influence legislation that we thought was going to a vote this last spring. The problem is Abraham has interpreted these ads as affecting his campaign,” Stein said. “We don’t lose our First Amendment rights just because we are a 501©(3) (nonprofit group) and just because this guy is running for re-election in a tight race.”

FAIR has nearly 70,000 donors who contribute a minimum of $35 as a membership fee. FAIR members get ten issues each year of “The FAIR Immigration Report,” special bulletins on immigration legislation in Congress, and invitations to attend FAIR-sponsored events, meetings and conferences. Stein told the Center that there are 50 foundations on board that are considered the major donors, but declined to disclose the names of any of these groups.

Americans for Job Security answered the FAIR ads with an $800,000 run of radio, print and television advertising. According to The Washington Post, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., solicited funding on behalf of this nonprofit group from high-tech companies such as Intel Corp. and Motorola to bolster Abrahams falling poll numbers. High-tech companies benefit from Abrahams support for loosening of immigration policies that allow skilled foreign workers to immigrate. But according to the Post, many in the industry felt Lott used heavy-handed techniques to pull in money for Abraham. The ad run, started mid-March, accuses Stabenow of collusion with FAIR.

“Call Stabenow,” the ad says, “Ask her to stop the smear campaign.” Stabenow’s campaign denies ever having contact with FAIR or any of the groups that are spending money in this campaign. This group, which received $1 million in seed money in 1997 from the American Insurance Association, announced plans in 1998 to spend $100 million over the next several years in election-related activities. A spokesman for the group said that goal was overstated; the group will spend $8 million or so this election and run a total of $2 million worth of ads in Michigan before the election. The Senate Ethics Committee is investigating relationships between Lott and Abraham staffers and business lobbyists.

The Business Roundtable is a coalition of top business executives from companies such as General Electric, U.S. Steel and General Motors. The group bought $150,000 worth of television ads in December 1999, and another $25,000 this past May lauding Abrahams health care voting record.

The Sierra Club, a San Francisco-based environmental group, ran ads in Michigan targeting Abrahams environmental voting record. While the Sierra Club would not reveal how much money it has spent in Michigan, it plans to continue running newspaper, radio and television ads, while also printing pamphlets for door-to-door delivery throughout the state. The group issued a mock “baseball card” featuring Abrahams face and his environmental votes recorded batting-average style.

All the Sierra Club’s political activities are run through its dedicated “527” fund. Section 527 status allows donors to avoid a severe gift tax and protects the Sierra Club from Internal Revenue Service audits investigating its political activities. Under the 527 tax filing, more than half of a groups’ activities must be political, but at the same time, it does not require the group to disclose financial information.

League of Conservation Voters, another environmental group with a dedicated 527 fund, named Abraham as one of its “dirty dozen.” The group was lawmakers it believes have the worst environmental record to be its “dirty dozen.” This election cycle, the group plans to spend $3 million to defeat the targeted 12. A spokeswoman for the group, who did not want to be named, told the Center that the group has spent more than $500,000 in the state. One ad has run and more ads — television, print and radio — are planned, including one that was scheduled to go into production the week of Sept. 25. The group also plans mass mailings, door-to-door pamphlets and fliers.

Michigan Right to Life, a conservative pro-life group based in Grand Rapids, spent $100,000 in ads in March charging that Stabenow supports what opponents call “partial-birth abortions.” Her campaign denies this claim.

American Business for Legal Immigration was the Republicans first response to the FAIR ads. This group, funded by the high-tech industry that benefits from Abrahams push for providing visas to highly skilled workers, includes such companies as Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard and Deloitte & Touche. The group has reportedly taken in $270,000 from these companies and spent roughly $100,000 to date in radio advertising in support of Abrahams immigration policies.

Americans for Tax Reform is a conservative nonprofit lobbying group run by the ubiquitous Republican consultant Grover Norquist. The group spent $1 million last summer in television ads in seven districts supporting their yes votes for the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, Abraham among them. The ad featured footage of the senator walking to the Capitol building in Washington, D.C.; a signal, according to Stabenow’s campaign, that there was coordination between the group and the candidate. Americans for Tax Reform, established in 1986, focuses on tax issues. Some 249 sitting members of Congress have signed the group’s anti-tax pledge, promising Americans that they will not vote to raise taxes while in office.

The AFL-CIO ran television and radio ads this past fall on the vote as Congress considered granting China permanent normal trade relations status, under which China would allow American businesses to take full advantage of a series of market-opening concessions China has made to join the World Trade Organization. The group was against granting that status and asked voters to express that view to Abraham. Abraham supports trade with China, and voted with the 83-15 majority in a Sept. 19 vote for permanent normal trade relations. The senator’s support for normalizing trade relations, in fact, are a major reason why the Kmart Corp. has donated $6,000 to his campaign, with possible plans to give $4,000 more. “We obviously support Abraham,” Dale Apley, division vice president of public policy for Kmart, told the Center, “because of his understanding of the issues that are important to us.” Kmart has donated $421,200 to Republicans and $70,000 to Democrats this election cycle.

Mich Impac, a coalition of immigration-control groups organized this past spring with the sole purpose of defeating Abraham in this election. Groups forming this political action committee include: the Midwest Coalition to Reform Immigration, Numbers USA, Pop.Stop, Americans for Better Immigration and Americans for Immigration Control Foundation. The group’s leadership will not discuss fund raising or spending goals. An excerpt from the Web site reads, “It is our collective belief that the only means available to us to achieve a meaningful and reasonable immigration policy and the termination of the illegal invasion is to attack what is sacrosanct to politicians, i.e. their re-election. With the defeat of Abraham this year, we will launch multiple removal campaigns in 2002. To our knowledge, this campaign will be a first. It is an open declaration of war against an archenemy to the American way — our heritage, our sovereignty, our Constitution, and the ideals it gives rise to.”

The Coalition for the Future American Worker is an umbrella organization that includes 10 immigration-control and environmental groups, including FAIR, Virginians for Immigration Control, Programmers Guild, the American Engineering Guild and others. The group plans to run ads in Michigan critical of Abrahams work on the Immigration subcommittee. The group has not disclosed its spending goals.

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