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Iowa: Outside Groups Attract Scrutiny

"527s" in Iowa food-fight.
 
 
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Want to know how inundated Iowans are with political ads and mailings these days? My parents, who live in the town of Fairfield, got nine separate candidate mailings yesterday alone. Four from John Edwards and his supporters, three from Hillary Clinton and her supporters, one from Ron Paul and one from Bill Richardson. How can anyone keep track of all this?

From Paul: "Hunting Down Osama bin Laden & Taking Him Out IS JOB #1." (I guess Paul wouldn't abolish the military…)

From Richardson: "All Our Troops Out of Iraq."

From Clinton: "New Beginnings for Our Children," "It's time for a President who sees things our way."

From Edwards: "A Fighter Who Will Win," "John Edwards Has a Plan to Stop Washington Politicians From Selling Out Our Families," "John Edwards Has A Plan to Defeat the Special Interests That Have Hijacked Our Government." (Notice a theme here?)

The last three mailers come from a labor-funded pro-Edwards group called the Alliance for a New America, funded by local chapters of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and run by Edwards' campaign manager in '04. In recent weeks, outside 527 groups have once again flooded into Iowa, especially on behalf of Edwards and Clinton. On the surface, that seems like a good thing for them. On the other hand, these outside groups can be controversial in their own right.

Under campaign finance laws, outside groups are barred from coordinating with a specific campaign. Edwards has publicly called for the ads to stop running. Yet an email sent in October by a leader of " SEIU for Edwards" calls for a discussion "with the Edwards campaign what specific sort of support they'd like to see from us," specifically "a serious 527 legal structure." The Edwards campaign says that "As soon as SEIU officials informed us that some of their staff were no longer able to communicate with us about the campaign, we immediately cut off all conversation with them, as we legally should." By publicly denouncing the 527s working on his behalf, Edwards risks looking like a hypocrite.

Meanwhile, Hillary's biggest outside supporter, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) has been relentlessly criticizing Barack Obama's healthcare plan. As one mailer states, "Under Barack Obama's plan, 15 million Americans will still be waiting for insurance." The only rub is that AFSCME, like Obama, opposes an individual healthcare mandate. And, in a separate ad, AFSCME quoted Edwards attacking Obama--even though the beneficiary of the mailing was Clinton.

The 527s may play an explosive role in Iowa--boosting a financially tight Edwards campaign, dishing out dirt on behalf of Hillary and raising issues a political campaign might not touch. A recent AFSCME mailer featured a picture of George W. Bush with the caption: "Somewhere, a village is about to get its idiot back." It's hard to imagine the Clinton campaign putting out anything quite that provocative.

Ari Berman is a contributing writer for The Nation and a Ralph Shikes Fellow at the Public Concern Foundation. He's currently based in D.C.

 
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