In 2004 a small ad campaign by an obscure organization called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth smeared John Kerry's Vietnam War record and dealt his campaign a blow from which it never fully recovered. The episode demonstrated the new power of independent political organizations, known as 527s or 501(c)s for the sections of the tax code under which they operate. These groups function outside the campaign-finance laws. Among other things, most can collect unlimited contributions.
Given the stakes and the expected closeness of this fall's election, it is no surprise that a new generation of them has mobilized in recent months. At least three groups--two that tilt Democratic and one Republican--are already generating controversy. Another, the September Fund, led by Hillary Clinton strategist Harold Ickes, is just getting under way. With the Democratic Party far behind Republicans in fund raising, this group of operatives hopes to reduce the G.O.P.'s advantage by raising $20 million to pour into advertising and other support for congressional campaigns and ballot initiatives.
The final weeks of a campaign are generally when advertising and rhetoric turn nasty. This year is likely to be no different.
•WHO'S BEHIND IT Run by Jon Soltz, who served in Iraq in 2003, the group counts among its directors former NATO Commander Wesley Clark and ex-Senator Bob Kerrey, who won the Congressional Medal of Honor in Vietnam, both Democrats.
•WHAT IT SAYS IT DOES Aims to help elect Iraq and Afghanistan veterans to Congress and hold current members of Congress accountable for "votes and positions that harm America and its troops and veterans."
•WHAT IT HAS ACTUALLY DONE Has run graphic and misleading television ads against Republican Senators George Allen and Rick Santorum, funded with regulated contributions to VoteVets' political-action committee, suggesting their votes against a Democratic funding measure deprived U.S. troops of modern body armor. In fact, the Government Accountability Office found that a lack of money didn't cause the armor shortfall in 2003. Rather, the military's suppliers could not keep up with the sudden surge in demand for the armor.
•WHO'S BEHIND IT Two former Democratic National Committee chairmen, Joe Andrew and Don Fowler, lead a group of party operatives, including former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman Tony Coelho, who also chaired Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign.
•WHAT IT SAYS IT DOES Plans to "educate the American public about the disastrous record of the current Republican Congress."
•WHAT IT HAS ACTUALLY DONE Has run radio and television ads attacking vulnerable G.O.P. incumbents, apparently exaggerating at least some of its claims against them. The independent watchdog group Factcheck.org a project of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center, chided Majority Action for digging back to three trips that Ohio Congresswoman Deborah Pryce took six years ago to support its claim that she "just seems to be on vacation."
Economic Freedom Fund
•WHO'S BEHIND IT The same person who brought you Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Texas homebuilder Bob Perry, who has close ties to the Bush White House, has given the new California organization $5 million, which exceeds the $4.5 million he provided as the largest contributor to the Swift Boat Veterans.