WASHINGTON – Defeating President Bush in 2004 has become a central focus in the life of billionaire George Soros (search), and he's ready to put his money where his mouth is. Soros has pledged $15 million of his personal wealth to activists working to undo Bush's presidency.
Meanwhile, television sitcom granddaddy Norman Lear has joined director Rob Reiner and movie stars like Whoopi Goldberg to form a new voter turnout organization targeted at young voters called Declare Yourself (search).
And electronic pop guru Moby has teamed up with Soros' son Jonathan Soros, actress Janeane Garofalo and other pop stars for a contest urging amateur filmmakers to produce their own 30-second anti-Bush videos (search).
All this activity has opponents crying foul over what has become a new post-campaign finance reform phenomenon: larger-than-life fat cats and celebrities giving to outside interest groups millions in unregulated soft money in an effort to keep Bush from another four years in the White House.
"These are the same people who were screaming for campaign finance reform," said Hollywood Republican activist Lionel Chetwynd. "I would like to compete with the likes of Mr. Soros and Mr. Lear, but frankly, I'm just not rich enough."
Republican political consultant Craig Shirley said Democratic special interests are taking independent fund-raising operations "to where no liberal hack has gone before."
But Democrats accuse Republicans of writing the book on using independent groups to raise soft money -- unlimited and undesignated cash contributions used to support the political legwork of campaigns. They also point to the more than $95 million Bush has already raised for the 2004 election, in which he will face no primary opponent.
"The Republicans and the people connected to Bush are the people who pioneered these independent organizations' engagement in the process," said Simon Rosenberg, executive director of the New Democrat Network (search).
"How can you speak with outrage when [Republicans] are raising money above any level anyone has raised before?" asked Ramona Oliver, spokeswoman for Emily's List (search), which raised and spent $22.6 million for Democrats in 2002 and has so far raised $10 million in 2004.
Bush has his own set of Texas Rangers, high-rolling donors who have so far helped the president raise more money than any other presidential candidate in history. Among the top of his list of corporate CEO supporters is Carl H. Linder of the American Financial Group, who has raised $2.5 million for Bush since 1999.
Shirley has also started Americans for a Better Future (search), with political consultant Frank Donatelli and attorney George Terwilliger, who served Bush during the 2000 recount. They have requested clarification from the Federal Election Commission (search) on campaign financing law for independent groups, and say they will kick it into gear if they get the green light from the FEC.
"Unfortunately, we don't have any billionaire conservatives like the billionaire liberals -- we'll have to come up with our own creative ways of raising money," he said.
Soros, a financier who is reportedly worth $7 billion, has spent billions of his wealth on philanthropic endeavors like fighting AIDS in Africa and economic development in Eastern Europe. Domestically, he has contributed to similar causes.
But recently, Soros has used his money to infuse political causes with cash, and ousting Bush from the Oval Office appears to be a top priority right now.
"America, under Bush, is a danger to the world," Soros told The Washington Post in November. "And I am willing to put my money where my mouth is."
So far, Soros has pledged to donate matching funds up to $5 million to Moveon.org (search), which began a $15 million ad campaign over the Thanksgiving week to slam the president.
He has also given $10 million to America Coming Together (search), a political action committee dedicated to getting Democrats out to the polls on Election Day. The heads of that group include former and present leaders of the AFL-CIO (search), Sierra Club (search) and Emily's List.
Soros has also pledged as much as $3 million to a new liberal Democratic think tank, the Center for American Progress (search).
But before his considerable donations to Democratic causes, Soros reportedly spent upwards of $18 million to help pass the new campaign finance reform laws, sponsored chiefly by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russell Feingold, D-Wis. The law went into effect immediately after the 2002 elections.
Critics find that hard to swallow -- that the man who pushed so hard to ban soft money is now one of its chief protagonists.
"Their message is, there must be campaign finance for everyone, just not the billionaires who can fund these groups," Chetwynd said.
Critics of campaign finance reform, now known as the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act (search), warned that once the national political parties and candidates were banned from raising and using unlimited amounts of soft money, nearly $500 million worth in 2000, outside groups that could still raise it legally would take up the slack.
For instance, political action committees like America Coming Together (search), give both hard money to candidates and unlimited soft money to activist groups. They expect to raise upwards of $94 million in soft money for voter mobilization efforts to defeat Bush.
Other groups -- called 527s (search) for their designation under the IRS tax code -- organize expressly to raise soft money and do not give any hard money to candidates or parties and do not have to file disclosure reports with the FEC. According to the Center for Public Integrity (search), 527s raised and spent a record $400 million in the last three years. Actress Jane Fonda was the biggest donor to 527s during this time, according to the Center, giving nearly $13 million to pro-choice causes.
Still other groups, like non-profits, can also raise unlimited amounts of soft money for so-called issue-ads that don’t advocate or oppose a specific candidate and they have even fewer disclosure requirements.