The Palin Payoff: How Sarah Brings in the Christian Cash
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Research for this story was supported by the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.
Until John McCain picked Sarah Palin as his running mate, Obama attack ops -- whether political action committees or their 501(c)4 partners -- were struggling mightily to raise the kind of cash that fueled the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth smear machine in 2004. More than $45 million poured into that effort to sink John Kerry's campaign, mainly from the pockets of wealthy Bush backers. A review of Federal Election Commission (FEC) campaign donations back in June of this year showed that the big Swift Boat donors -- such as Ohio investor Carl H. Lindner and family, Dallas pharmacy magnate Harold C. Simmons, Texas homebuilder Bob Perry and oilman T. Boone Pickens -- were putting their money elsewhere, either pouring it directly into the McCain campaign or sending it off to Republican Congressional races, the Republican Governors Association or Newt Gingrich's PAC, American Solutions. But all that changed when the evangelical pro-life Alaska governor stepped up to the podium in Minneapolis to accept the Republican nomination for vice-president. Overnight the culture warriors, who'd been grumbling about McCain from the sidelines, were back in play. The Council for National Policy, one of the Christian right's most secretive strategy bodies, immediately endorsed the "values"-enhanced McCain ticket, triggering a $10 million infusion of campaign donations from evangelicals and their associates on the hard right. In this volatile race for the White House, they may yet make the difference. Call it the Palin Payoff.
In 2004 white evangelicals went for Bush over Kerry by a 57 percent margin -- 78 to 21. Among non-Hispanic Catholics, Bush beat Kerry 56 to 43. Together the white evangelicals and non-Hispanic Catholics accounted for 44 percent of all voters in that election. A September poll by Pew Research shows that McCain, once despised by the Christian right, was now -- post-Palin -- climbing toward Bush's extraordinary numbers. On August 13 McCain already held a wide margin over Obama among white evangelicals -- 68 to 24. When Palin, a diehard abortion foe, came on board those numbers jumped to 71 for McCain and dropped to 21 for Obama. In August non-Hispanic Catholic voters were deadlocked between the two candidates with McCain and Obama each at 44 points. After Labor Day and the addition of Palin, McCain opened a 7 percent lead over Obama among these Catholics -- 48 to 41. All that happened before the Christian right came off the sidelines and onto the playing field with an anti-Obama political action offensive powered by an infusion of millions of dollars. With this revitalized social conservative machine behind them, McCain and Palin now have an opening to gain ground in such crucial battleground states as Pennsylvania, Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Minnesota, New Mexico, Colorado and Wisconsin.
On September 15 Born Alive Truth, a 527 out of Mokena, Illinois, launched a $338,000 TV ad blitz in Ohio and New Mexico tarring Obama as a supporter of infanticide. The 30-second ad featured a Nashville abortion survivor, Gianna Jessen. Born Alive Truth is fronted by former nurse and Christian right player Jill Stanek. Stanek, a one-time operator with Concerned Women for America, advocates against "partial birth" abortion and fought access to Plan B, the emergency contraception pill, by saying it would become a tool of "rapists and male sexual predators." Now a columnist for the ultra-right website WorldNetDaily. Stanek is known for repeating bogus claims that the Chinese dine on human fetuses and that Terri Schiavo was fully cognizant at the time her feeding tube was removed. In one classic column, Stanek equated Parkinson's victim Michael J. Fox with Hitler for his support of embryonic stem-cell research:
He supports human embryonic stem-cell experimentation, thus contending that some humans are subhuman and expendable for others' personal gain. We know there is nothing new under the sun. So Fox's character flaw is not new, just a variation of the worst of human behavior throughout history. Slaveholders thought those whose lives and deaths they controlled were "property," as the U.S. Supreme Court determined in the 1857 Dred Scott decision. Hitler thought Jews were evolutionary mistakes. The Islamic government of Sudan currently has it in for black Christians. Different day, different holocaust ... The future Fox wants to create for his three daughters looks bleak. No longer will only hens lay eggs for human consumption if Fox has his way. His daughters will be exploited for their eggs, too.
Catholic multimillionaire Raymond Ruddy, one of Mitt Romney's significant backers from Massachusetts, likes to keep a low-profile -- as John Malloy, the secretary for the charity Ruddy founded, told this reporter, "Ray's the man, but we like to keep him under the radar." But Ruddy single-handedly underwrote the TV ad campaign. Ruddy sits on the board of Maximus, the giant government services provider in Reston, Virginia, that pioneered welfare privatization and then grew fat from the Bush Administration contracts.
Back in 2004, Ruddy pushed the Christian right grantees of his charity, the Gerard Health Foundation, to mobilize the evangelical vote for Bush. Ruddy hired the Family Research Council's Chuck Donovan to put the word out through anti-abortion newsletters that he'd provide grants to conservative groups to develop ambitious voter registration drives. Ruddy also pumped nearly $400,000 into Dobson's Focus on the Family Action anti-gay marriage campaigns that tipped voting patterns in several states and nearly $120,000 into the anti-abortion Your Catholic Vote, which mounted a hardball anti-Kerry campaign attacking the senator from Massachusetts in newspaper ads that ran across the country. For the 2006 midterms, Ruddy and Swift Boat Veterans financier Carl Lindner joined forces to kick in $847,000 to Common Sense Ohio, a 527 that ran push polls and deceptive ad campaigns against Democrats in seven states. The recipients of these robocalls were asked such misleading questions as "Would you support medical experiments on unborn babies?" and "Do you believe that foreign terrorists should have the same legal rights and privileges as American citizens?"
Many of the new attack ads, push polls and Internet email and blog virals on Obama out of this reborn "values voter" network confine themselves to the touchstone issue of abortion -- but other strategies have emerged as well.
On August 21, the American Issues Project, a 501(c)4, sprang a TV ad on viewers in Ohio and Michigan that hammered Obama for his ties to former Weather Underground member Bill Ayers. The ad featured 9/11 footage mixed with documentary clips from the Weather Underground's bombing campaign back in the 1970s as a narrator gravely wonders: "Why would Barack Obama be friends with someone who bombed the Capitol and is proud of it? Do you know enough to elect Barack Obama?"
These ads were funded by Dallas Swift Boat sugar daddy Harold Simmons to the tune of $2.8 million. The American Issues Project is run out of a mail drop in Tampa, Florida, by its two politically connected executive directors -- Ed Martin, Jr., an ardent anti-abortion attorney in St. Louis who has served as counsel for Americans United for Life and chief-of-staff for Missouri's Republican governor, Matt Blunt, and Ed Failor, Jr., who was a consultant to McCain's campaign in Iowa in 2007 and Bush/Cheney field director in 2004. Governor Blunt pressured Martin to resign in 2007 after it was discovered that the latter had used his state e-mail account to send information to his anti-abortion cronies, in an attempt to get them behind the removal of the Missouri attorney general from a lawsuit that would have restricted enforcement of a new anti-abortion law. Even after he was caught, Martin refused to hand over the emails and then scrubbed them from his computer.
Longtime Kansas Republican political operative Richard "Rich" Nadler runs the America Majority PAC, which is funded through the America Majority Foundation, a 501(c)3 also in the hands of Nadler, author of such tracts as Feticide and the Birth Cycle in Me'am Lo'ez and Abortion: The Hijacking of a Tradition. America Majority is best known for a series of notorious race-based attacks on Democrats in the 2006 midterms. One ad targeting African-American voters that ran in a dozen Congressional districts featured two black men exchanging the following dialogue:
"If you make a little mistake with one of your 'hos, you'll want to dispose of that problem tout de suite, no questions asked."
"That's too cold. I don't snuff my own seed," says the other.
"Maybe you do have a reason to vote Republican," the first replies.
Another nifty piece of Nadler's 2006 handiwork geared toward black voters linked a trip to Syria made by former KKK Grand Dragon David Duke to Democratic opposition to the Iraq War. "I can understand why a Ku Klux Klan cracker like David Duke makes nice with the terrorists," a black male voice intones. "What I want to know is why so many of the Democrat politicians I helped elect are on the same side of the Iraq War as David Duke."
In this election Nadler's PAC is targeting Latinos with anti-Obama radio and TV ads on Spanish-languages stations in California, Colorado, Wisconsin, Illinois, Oregon and Utah.
Another emerging player is the California-based Our Country Deserves Better PAC. In an early September interview, PAC coordinator Joe Wierzbicki said the PAC plans to "raise in excess of $1 million by Election Day" to run a series of anti-Obama television ads in as many as ten states.
Our Country Deserves Better is a project of Russo, Marsh and Associates, a longtime California-based GOP public relations firm. The PAC has prepared at least eight television spots attacking Obama, three of which, covering the gamut of anti-Obama smears -- "Obama Mocks America's Christian Heritage," "Obama's Patriotism Problem" and "Obama's Wrong Values" -- were unveiled in an August fundraising pitch on a Townhall.com email newsletter just two days after McCain made the Palin announcement, "Barack Obama Sinks to a New Low!" By September, Our Country Deserves Better spokesperson Lloyd Marcus had retooled the old Hall & Oates' hit "Sara Smile" for the Alaska governor and fired it off onto YouTube as a video.
The anti-Obama ad that focuses on America's "Christian heritage" shows the candidate saying, during a June 28, 2006 speech, that, "whatever we once were, we are no longer a Christian nation." The attack stirred up controversy among Democrats -- controversy that Wierzbicki, the PAC coordinator, took pains to explain away. "Obama's vulnerability with faith-based voters will not be because of our advertising," Wierzbicki said, "but because of Senator Obama's own words and actions."
Technically, that is true. But the full quote from Obama reads: "Given the increasing diversity of America's population, the dangers of sectarianism have never been greater. Whatever we once were, we are no longer just a Christian nation; at least not just. We are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers."
It hasn't been all smooth sailing for these revived Swift Boaters. The Real Truth About Obama, Inc., a 527 formed in July by veteran anti-abortion attorneys James Bopp and Barry Bostrom, went after Obama with a pair of outrageous ads attacking the Illinois Senator on his abortion stance. The ads asserted that Obama would make taxpayers pay for all abortions, keep minors' abortions a secret from their parents and make "partial birth" abortions legal, and Real Truth sought to have the ads placed on Rush Limbaugh's and Sean Hannity's radio shows in September. When objections were raised by the Obama camp and PAC watchdogs, Bopp filed for an injunction against FEC spending and disclosure rules that prohibit 527s advocating against a candidate -- rules created in the wake of the Swift Boat Veterans actions in 2004. But a federal judge in Virginia ruled against Real Truth, upholding the FEC regulations, and the radio spots have yet to air.
That may be a minor setback for these forces, though.
In the Age of Palin, the traditional Christian right political powerhouses -- Focus on the Family and its affiliated Family Research Council Action -- are back in the game as well. As recently as February, Focus on the Family's James Dobson was threatening to sit out the November elections if McCain became the candidate, issuing a statement that said, "I am convinced Sen. McCain is not a conservative and, in fact, has gone out of his way to stick his thumb in the eyes of those who are. He has at times sounded more like a member of the other party." But then along came Sarah, and in the first two weeks of September Dobson's political action arm -- Focus on the Family Action -- dumped $104,000 on radio spots and mailings taking on Obama and endorsing McCain. The political action arm of the Family Research Council also held off until Palin entered the picture, registering with the FEC in support of McCain just a week after the Republican convention.
And if any questions remain about how galvanized the Christian right GOP base is these days, that pit bull of culture warriors, Pat Buchanan, put paid to that the day after Palin's performance in Minneapolis. "The American Right has just died and gone to heaven," Buchanan crowed in the lede of his September 5 column, following up on a Palin rhapsody from two days before in which he wrote, "should this ticket win, Palin will eclipse every other Republican as heir apparent to the presidency and will have her own power base among Lifers, Evangelicals, gun folks and conservatives -- wholly independent of President McCain ... Palin has become, overnight, the most priceless political asset the movement has."
Well, given the millions flowing into the religious right machine in the days since her arrival on the scene, not exactly priceless. The Swift Boaters and the Christian right knew Palin's price tag was high -- and they're proving themselves ready to pay up.
Bill Berkowitz is a freelance writer covering right-wing groups and movements.