TPM across all its

TPM, across all its platforms, is making a concerted effort to track the various shadow groups involved in congressional campaigns nationwide. The 527 groups, which played such a huge role in the 2004 presidential campaign, are back with a vengeance.

While technically the 527s that take soft money are prohibited from coordinating their activities with candidates and parties, you can’t fully understand the strategies and tactics of the national campaigns being waged by either party without understanding where the 527s fit into the mix.

The prohibition on coordination is one of those fine legal distinctions that makes the campaign finance laws such a mess.

Take for instance “Softer Voices,” a 527 group supporting Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) in his re-election campaign against Bob Casey. Until this past week, the contact person and custodian of records for Softer Voices–the person who signed their IRS filings–was Cleta Mitchell, a partner at the DC firm of Foley & Lardner LLP and . . . wait for it . . . legal counsel to the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

All of Softer Voices’s contributions so far in 2006 came this past week, with $650,000 raised from just two contributors. The group turned around and spent more than $750,000, all of it on the Pennsylvania U.S. Senate race, according to the group’s FEC filing. In between the recipt of the contributions and the ad buy, the group filed an amended IRS report in which Cleta Mitchell is no longer listed as contact person for the group.

You may recall the controversy that erupted in the 2004 elections when it was learned that GOP power lawyer Ben Ginsberg was representing both the Bush-Cheney ’04 campaign and Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Ginsberg resigned from the Bush campaign, but his firm, Patton Boggs, still represents the Swift Boaters, collecting more than $275,000 in fees from the group since June 2005. Meanwhile, according to his bio, Ginsberg represents the RNC, NRSC, NRCC and the Republican Governors Association.

As I said, these are very fine legal distinctions.