WASHINGTON – Here's a pop quiz on money in politics: Who gives more money to federal candidates, the National Rifle Association or MoveOn.org?
And it isn't even close.
In the last two election cycles, MoveOn.org Political Action Committee spent more than $58 million in pro-Democrat political advocacy, according to Federal Election Commission records.
In just the 2006 election cycle, MoveOn.org spent $27 million in advocacy to elect a Democratic majority in Congress and used its formidable fund-raising clout to propel numerous Democratic challengers to House and Senate victories. By comparison, the NRA PAC donated $11 million in 2006.
"They give away and raise about three times as much as the National Rifle Association," said Massie Ritsch, communications director for the Center for Responsive Politics. "A tremendous amount of money, especially when you consider how quickly they came on the scene."
Brief History, Lasting Impact
Founded in 1998 by Wes Boyd and Joan Blades, MoveOn.org started as an online petition to stop the impeachment of President Bill Clinton in the aftermath of the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal. Boyd and Blades, software engineers from Berkeley, Calif., posted a petition on the Internet seeking signatures for Congress to censure Clinton and "move on" to other domestic issues.
The online petition attracted like-minded liberals and MoveOn began a near-continuous dialogue with its members about what it should do to influence American politics. It created its PAC in 1999 and began attracting money for the 2000 campaign, raising, according to reports, $250,000 in the first five days and $2 million for the entire cycle. Though impressive for its first cycle, MoveOn did not find its true voice or tap into deep-seated anti-war angst until after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
"To combat terrorism, we must act in accordance with a high standard that does not disregard the lives of people in other countries," reads a petition drawn up by the organization after the attacks. "If we retaliate by bombing Kabul and kill people oppressed by the Taliban dictatorship who have no part in deciding whether terrorists are harbored, we become like the terrorists we oppose."
That dovish advocacy flowed seamlessly into MoveOn's campaign against the Iraq war, leading to a wider Internet following, bigger membership and larger contributions. MoveOn continued its anti-war campaign after the invasion of Iraq and mobilized money and members in the 2004 presidential election, rallying around Howard Dean's campaign and helping propel him to front-runner status in the polls and shattering all previous online fund-raising records.
A Funnel of Funding
The 2006 election cycle thrust MoveOn into the ranks of potent pro-Democrat organizations. Never before had the group's ability to identify candidates and collect small donations on their behalf yield bigger results.
"MoveOn has grown into one of the biggest political action committees in the country," Ritsch said. "MoveOn collects money and says to its members 'We're going to pass that money along.' They're a conduit. They are aggregating and assembling all the money and pooling their resources so it adds up to big influence."
MoveOn backs candidates and asks members to send contributions on their behalf. They pass the donations on directly and handle all the paperwork.
"They're speaking for the grassroots," Ritsch said. "This is a form of bundling."
A quick tally of MoveOn-directed contributions in the 2006 election cycle, according to records compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, offers a sample of the impressive size of its donations:
— Sen. Robert Byrd, West Virginia = $834,211
— Sen. Claire McCaskill, Missouri = $382,531
— Sen. Jon Tester, Montana = $301,788
— Sen. Sherrod Brown, Ohio = $287,622
— Sen. Bob Casey, Pennsylvania = $160,780
Those contributions helped build a Senate Democratic majority as four of the five entered the Senate for the first time. McCaskill and Tester won razor-thin victories over well-funded GOP incumbents Jim Talent and Conrad Burns.
MoveOn-directed contributions also propelled several Democratic challengers to House victories, among them: Nick Lampson, Texas' 22nd District, $156,883; Tim Mahoney, Florida's 16th District, $145,334; Zack Space, Ohio's 18th District, $141,298; Michael Arcuri, New York's 24th District, $129,685; Joe Donnelly, Indiana's 2nd District, $123,035, and Tim Walz, Minnesota's 1st District, $102,657.
"They can help you a lot if you're a (MoveOn) candidate," said Byron York, White House correspondent for the conservative National Review magazine and author of "The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy," a book on powerful liberal groups and their organizing practices.
"They live by the $25, $50 and $100 contributions. They have become a real powerhouse in Democratic circles. The smaller the contributions, the more people it takes to come up with a big amount of money. They can legitimately say they represent a large segment of the Democratic primary electorate," York said.
MoveOn's clout was visible most recently in the muted and belated response from prominent Democrats in the aftermath of the organization's full-page New York Times advertisement last week questioning whether congressional testimony by Army Gen. David Petraeus, head of Multinational Forces in Iraq, would "Betray Us?"
On Capitol Hill, Democrats avoided the issue for days as did the party's top presidential candidates. Only after days and days of coverage did prominent Democrats declare the advertisement out of bounds.
Tale of Torment
MoveOn directs no contributions to Republican candidates or incumbents, instead avidly spending money against the GOP. It spent more than $2.5 million in 2006 in independent expenditures against Republicans.
House GOP incumbents who lost in 2006 and saw significant MoveOn independent expenditures against them can testify. Among those hardest hit: Charlie Bass, New Hampshire's 2nd District, $143,266; Chris Chocola, Indiana's 2nd District, $245,603; Melissa Hart, Pennsylvania's 4th District, $297,603; and Nancy Johnson, Connecticut's 5th District, $444,424.
Two House Republicans survived the MoveOn independent expenditure onslaught in '06, Rep. Deborah Pryce, who represents Ohio's 15th District, absorbed $417,623 in MoveOn wrath but won a narrow victory nevertheless. Pryce recently announced she will not seek re-election to a ninth term. Rep. Thelma Drake of Virginia's 2nd District won a second term with 51 percent of the vote after withstanding $529,535 in MoveOn independent expenditure torment, giving her the distinction among House Repubicans of taking the most expensive independent expenditure punch MoveOn threw in the 2006 campaign and living to tell the tale.
MoveOn also punishes Democrats who stray from their liberal, anti-war world view. MoveOn ran a radio ad against Michigan Democratic Rep. John Dingell when he announced his opposition to higher fuel economy standards for automobiles and light trucks.
The script of the brief radio campaign portrayed a conversation between a father and son about something called a Dingellsaurus. The child asks his father what that is. The script reads in part:
"Someone who's been in Congress so long, he forgets about the people who sent him there," says the father.
"Are there any around today?" asks son, Billy, to which the father replies: "Our own Congressman John Dingell. He's standing in the way of the first energy bill ever that would really combat global warming. It would also help the auto companies in the long run and that means more jobs."
"Is a Dingellsaurus dangerous?" Billy asks. The father replies: "Very, because if the Dingellsaurus gets his way, we could all be extinct."
Earlier this month, MoveOn ran a brief television campaign against Washington Democratic Rep. Brian Baird after he returned from a trip to Iraq and announced the Bush troop surge may be achieving important military gains. The ad featured an anti-war Iraq veteran. The script reads in part: "Keeping American soldiers in Iraq for an indefinite period of time being attacked by an unidentifiable enemy is immoral and irresponsible." It asked viewers to "Tell Rep. Baird: Support Our Troops. Bring Them Home."
"Just because MoveOn only supports Democrats doesn't mean it supports all Democrats," Ritsch said.