Today’s Must Read

January 21, 2008 8:46 a.m.

We spent a good deal of time in the 2006 elections tracking the activity of third party groups on the right, groups with anonymous names like the Economic Freedom Fund. Funded by the most part by millionaire home-builder (and former Swift Boat patron) Bob Perry, the groups swooped in to attack Dem candidates throughout the country, airing radio, TV, and print ads and calling hundreds of thousands of voters with push polls.

But Perry only gave about $9 million to such groups that year. Freedom’s Watch, with its close White House connections and network of Bob Perrys, is a whole new breed.

The group aims to raise and spend approximately $250 million for the 2008 cycle, a vast amount of money they apparently plan to use not only on the presidential election, but to greater effect in numerous House and Senate races throughout the country, where six figures can go a long way.

To review the White House connections: the group is headed by Bradley Blakeman, a former Bush White House official, Mel Sembler, a millionaire former Bush admbassador to Italy, and Ari Fleischer, who serves as the group’s spokesman. Much of its support so far has come from Sembler and casino magnate and billionaire Sheldon Adelson, the sixth richest person in the world. (The group intends to “broaden its base” as time goes on, Fleischer says.) The group got off the ground with a $15 million effort to support the president’s surge strategy in August, but it’s sticking around for the long haul.

The Washington Post headlines its takeout on the group “A Conservative Answer to MoveOn.” To which the founder responds:

Wes Boyd, who co-founded with his wife in their home in Berkeley, Calif., said the two groups are fundamentally different because his liberal organization was set up outside the influence of Democratic Party operatives and is funded primarily by small-dollar donors around the country.

Freedom’s Watch, on the other hand, is “doing attack ads by Beltway operatives, financed by billionaires, at the request of the White House,” Boyd said by e-mail. “MoveOn helps millions of real people get engaged and be heard and is solely funded by these same people.”

Whether Freedom’s Watch is the right’s MoveOn or not — and at least for now the comparison is silly — they’re sure to be a major factor in the elections this year. A special election in December showed how:

Adelson personally wrote an $80,000 check to Freedom’s Watch on Dec. 7… just four days before the election that gave Republican Robert Latta the House seat representing the district around Bowling Green. Behind a blood-red foreground, the group’s ad showed Latinos hurrying under fences and being frisked by police as a narrator accused Democratic candidate Robin Weirauch and “liberals in Congress” of supporting free health care for illegal immigrants….

After Latta won, the DCCC chairman, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), issued a memo warning fellow Democrats about the new independent group gunning for them. Van Hollen’s campaign committee has $31 million, compared with $2.3 million for the Republicans’ committee, but he is deeply concerned that independent groups on the right are now engaged in congressional races while liberal groups are focused on the presidential race.

When it comes to political money, “there’s a whole other universe out there,” Van Hollen said he told Democrats. “Don’t get lulled into a false sense of security.”

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