Money and Democracy

Published — December 13, 2011 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

Pro-Romney super PAC using media firms tied to Swift Boat, Willie Horton ads

Independent-spending group acts as attack dog


A recent ad attacking Republican presidential frontrunner Newt Gingrich by a pro-Mitt Romney “super PAC” was produced and distributed by some of the same consultants who were behind two of the most controversial advertisements in American presidential campaign history.

The “Restore Our Future, Inc.” super PAC paid $44,666 to McCarthy Hennings Media, Inc., a Washington, D.C., media consulting firm whose president, Larry McCarthy, made the infamous “Willie Horton” ad in 1988. The ad helped sink the candidacy of Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis. McCarthy is also a co-founder of the super PAC.

In addition, a payment of $782,052 went to Mentzer Media Services, Inc. for the media buy, according to Federal Election Commission records.

The Towson, Md.-based firm was paid more than $18 million for its work in the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” campaign and was the largest beneficiary of the group’s spending, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The ads accused 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry of distorting his war record.

The anti-Newt Gingrich “Smiling” ad, as reported last week by iWatch News, first appeared on YouTube and was removed when reporters asked another of the group’s co-founders about the spot. Now, it is back online and, according to a spokeswoman for Restore Our Future, is currently on the air in Iowa.

The group has also been airing a second ad, entitled “Now You See the Problem,” which supports Romney and criticizes President Barack Obama. According to FEC records, the group spent $826,719 on the two ads.

The group said last week it will spend $3.1 million on television and radio advertising in Iowa. Spokeswoman Brittany Gross told iWatch News that that total includes the two spots running currently and future ads.

Mentzer’s clients have included House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the Republican Governors Association and conservative groups such as the Club for Growth and the Progress for America Voter Fund. A Mentzer spokesman said the firm does not comment on its clients or its work.

Some top donors to the Swiftboat committee have donated to Restore Our Future, including former U.S. Ambassador Sam Fox and Texas homebuilder Bob Perry, a prolific contributor to Republican groups.

Super PACs were formed following the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which allowed corporations and labor unions to spend money supporting or opposing candidates.

Experts say these new super PACs — which are prohibited from coordinating with candidates — may fill the role of attack dog while insulating the candidates themselves.

Bill Allison of the non-profit Sunlight Foundation, which advocates for transparency in government, sees this happening in the 2012 races.

“Some [super PACs] are almost shadow campaigns, or the flip side of the campaign,” he said. “The advantage is they can run the negative advertising without it coming back to bite the candidate — having this other vehicle to do that kind of dirty work allows candidates to be positive in their ads.”

Veteran campaign finance reform advocate Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, suspects these ads are just the beginning.

“We’re still in the off year,” she notes, and “as people really focus in, I still would expect super PACs to be much more visible on television, much more on the negative road.”

She says because they are a relatively new entity, many independent expenditure-only committees have had to spend this off year getting organized.

“That’s slowed them down but,” she said. “It won’t last for much longer.”

The Willie Horton ad said then-Massachusetts Gov. Dukakis had allowed weekend prison furloughs for felons, including convicted murderer Willie Horton, an African American. Horton kidnapped and assaulted a young couple while on a furlough, and raped the woman. Critics accused the creators of the ad of being fear mongering racists. The ad was paid for by the Natonal Security PAC, an outside expenditure group.

A call to McCarthy Hennings Media was not returned.

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