WASHINGTON – While the public sees nine Democratic candidates vying to oust President Bush in 2004, an army of special interest groups are hard at work behind the scenes to ensure their agendas advance to the White House right along with them.
First, of course, are the political parties themselves — spinning the message, mobilizing voters and raising funds. Then there are the ideological groups and their political action committees (search), which raise hard and soft money and energize the grass roots. Finally, there are the think tanks that gauge voter trends and craft the agendas.
"There are literally hundreds and hundreds, if not thousands of organizations that want their voices heard in campaigns," said Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democrat Network (search), a political advocacy organization that raises money for and works to elect centrist Democrats.
"There are millions of dollars spent by groups to have their special message heard by the electorate, outside of the campaign and outside of the candidates," he added. "It’s an enormous part of speech in American life."
Such groups raised and spent tens of millions of dollars to support candidates and parties in the 2002 election cycle. Their presence in 2004 is expected to increase, say experts, thanks in part to campaign finance reform, which banned candidates and parties from raising unregulated soft money, but allows outside groups to continue to raise and spend it. And, despite new restrictions regarding issue ads, these organizations are free to engage in a whole host of political activities.
For example, the New Democrat Network is not endorsing any candidate for the Democratic nomination, but is raising money to organize voter drives and to get voters energized about their platform, which is a moderate approach to the economy, education and national security, and above all, replacing President Bush.
They draw on the policy work from the Democratic Leadership Council (search), a moderate think tank that counts prominent Democratic lawmakers as members. "We want to ensure we have the best candidates with the best ideas," said Rosenberg.
So does the Campaign for America’s Future (search), which is an umbrella organization that brings together labor unions, civil rights associations and myriad liberal interest groups for a "progressive leadership network."
Unlike the NDN and the DLC, they think Democrats should be leaning more left of center, says Roger Hickey, co-founder of the campaign.
"We’re going to be very active," in helping raise money and rallying voters around specific issues, like Social Security, jobs and the environment, he said. "It’s clear that the [Democratic] base is progressive and wants the party to stand for something."
Unions and trial lawyers make up the top 20 PAC contributors to the Democratic Party, and gave about $36 million in 2001 and 2002. Democrats also get millions from environmentalists, feminists, gun control activists and pro-Israel PACs.
Republicans have their own powerhouse supporters. Business and trade interests make up their list of top 20 PAC contributors, which raised and spent close to $22 million in 2001 and 2002. They also get big help from pro-life and gun rights PACs.
Not all Republican PACs agree on the agenda, either. The Republican Main Street Partnership (search), which raises money and serves moderate GOP interests, raised and spent $1.5 million in 2002 — some of which was spent defending incumbent Republicans from primary challenges from more conservative candidates.
"We prefer not to spend our money doing that, but unfortunately we were forced to," noted Sarah Chamberlain Resnick, executive director of the partnership.
The Club for Growth (search), which said it raised over $10 million in 2002 for tax-cutting Republicans, emerged as the Main Street Partnership’s nemesis in several primary races. "We basically back Republicans who are for limited government and cutting taxes," said executive director David Keating.
"We are willing to get involved in primary races if there is a Republican who is bad on the issues," he said.
Darrell Shull, vice president of political operations for the Business Industry Political Action Committee (search) (BIPAC) said the Democrats have long perfected the art of using coalitions of activist groups and PACs to build vast networks of campaign support during the election cycle.
He said BIPAC aspires to use techniques employed by the other side to get a pro-business message across to the 500 blue chip companies and trade organizations that make up BIPAC.
"We will tell business how to identify the issues that affect business, identify the candidates and where they stand on the issues and then how to get their employees to the polls," he said.
According to the Federal Election Commission, there were 4,027 PACs as of Jan. 1. That doesn’t count all of the non-profits and think tanks that specialize in organizing and policy making, said Rosenberg.
"There is tremendous competition for these groups to get their message out and across," he said. "We need to do a better job than they are. That’s what politics is all about."