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Super PACs enter fray in Senate race

Lugar
Mourdock

Super PACs, the boon and bane of Republican presidential candidates, will try to sway GOP voters in Indiana when they choose a nominee for the U.S. Senate.

Supporters of Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., have formed a super political action committee named Indiana Values SuperPAC. Lugar’s challenger in the May 8 primary election, state Treasurer Richard Mourdock, is getting a boost from a super PAC called FreedomWorks for America.

Super PACs “are just part of the lay of the land these days,” said Andy Klingenstein, a legislative aide to Lugar in the early 1980s and the treasurer of Indiana Values SuperPAC.

Federal court rulings in the past two years have allowed for the creation of the groups, which operate independently of candidate campaigns and can raise and spend unlimited sums of money to try to elect or defeat candidates.

Traditional PACs, many of them affiliated with businesses and unions, can receive no more than $5,000 from a single donor in a year and can give no more than $5,000 to a single candidate in an election cycle.

The non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics reports that 284 super PACs have been organized in recent months and spent $32.8 million. Many have raised no cash, including 60 reportedly formed by a Florida resident who has devised names suggesting they represent Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, former President George W. Bush and the customers of various companies.

Recently, super PACs have attracted nearly as much attention as the candidates they support.

Winning Our Future, which backs Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich, is probably best known for its 28-minute video, “King of Bain,” attacking the business record of GOP front-runner Mitt Romney when he ran a private equity firm. Winning Our Future has spent $11 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Restore Our Future, which supports Romney, unleashed a barrage of attack ads against Gingrich ahead of the Iowa caucus vote. The group has spent roughly $4.4 million, the center found.

Negative campaigns

Negative campaigning is one reason the pro-Lugar super PAC launched, its treasurer said.

“Sen. Lugar’s record is being distorted, in our view, and people from outside the state are beginning to pick up on that – third-party groups who have threatened to get into the race in a big way,” Klingenstein said.

A spokesman for FreedomWorks, a conservative group in Washington, D.C., that mobilizes local-level activists, said the notion its super PAC is pouring in money from outside Indiana “is kind of funny.”

“That’s not our model at all,” said Brendan Steinhauser, director of federal and state campaigns for FreedomWorks. “We would not be in that race if (Mourdock supporters) hadn’t wanted our help.”

Steinhauser said FreedomWorks for America will spend about $100,000 on the Indiana primary, although likely none on TV ads. The money will go instead for training volunteers, operating phone banks and distributing campaign materials.

FreedomWorks for America has already bought about $14,700 in yard signs, bumper stickers, door hangers and the like from vendors in Logansport, North Carolina and Texas, according to the group’s filings with the Federal Election Commission.

Steinhauser said the theme is to “retire Lugar,” and there will be yard signs with a message to that effect. Mourdock backers include tea party activists who charge that Lugar, a senator since 1977, has been anything but conservative in his votes on immigration, nuclear weapons, Supreme Court nominations and federal aid for banks and automakers.

FreedomWorks for America also is involved in Republican primary races in Nebraska, Texas and Utah.

Steinhauser said the super PAC’s grass-roots approach is “more efficient and effective” than running costly TV spots.

“In our view, you’re kind of wasting time and money when you are blasting out to the entire state when a lot of folks aren’t registered (to vote), a lot of folks are registered but don’t vote, a lot of folks are registered as Democrats,” he said. “When you break it down, you are going after Republicans who actually vote. That’s a small universe, so why not hyper-target it with phone calls, door hangers, yard signs, events in the area.”

An attorney for the libertarian Institute for Justice, which last week defended super PACs as free speech, questioned the effectiveness of political advertising.

“Political advertising does not buy elections any more than corporate advertising buys market share,” Steve Simpson, who argued a court case that legalized super PACs, said in a news release. “If it did, we would all be driving American cars and drinking New Coke. Ross Perot would have been elected President.”

Klingenstein declined to say how much money Indiana Values SuperPAC hopes to raise or how it will be allocated between advertising and other campaign activities.

“I would predict that we will do some of each,” he said. “We will be on the ground; we will be on the air.”

He said his super PAC consists of other former Lugar aides.

“There are a large handful of people that are working actively on this,” he said. “We are trying to cast a large net in and out of the state of Indiana. We expect that when this is done there will actually be a large number of people working on it.”

Asked about the risks of a super PAC effort backfiring, as the anti-Romney “King of Bain” video seemed to because of factual errors, Klingenstein said: “We are going to be fair, and we are going to be accurate. … One of our important principles before we started this was, ‘Let’s do no harm (to Lugar’s re-election campaign).’ ”

Super PACs and candidate campaigns are not supposed to coordinate with one another, a federal mandate that has been lampooned by late-night TV comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert in hatching their own super PAC. Klingenstein, 54, a private investor who lives in the Washington area, said he has seen Lugar only once or twice in the past 30 years but remained loyal to his old boss because Lugar “is a symbol of consistency and integrity. He’s all about public service.”

Money race

Through the third quarter of 2011, Lugar’s campaign had raised more than $3.8 million, while Mourdock had collected about $800,000. Recently, Lugar’s campaign said it raised $750,000 in the fourth quarter and is sitting on $4 million in cash.

With such a large lead in the money race, why would Lugar need assistance from a super PAC?

“We are trying to help move the needle just a little bit in his direction,” Klingenstein said. “It’s going to be a close race. If we move it a little bit in his direction, he’s going to win.”

There has been speculation that the super PAC for the conservative Club for Growth, headed by Chris Chocola, a former Indiana congressman, will spend money in an effort to help Mourdock and hurt Lugar.

“We’re looking at the race,” said Barney Keller, communications director for Club for Growth.

bfrancisco@jg.net

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