Group helps Huckabee with organizing voters in Iowa
By Jim Kuhnhenn
WASHINGTON — A group affiliated with supporters of Republican Mike Huckabee’s presidential campaign is organizing caucus-goers in Iowa and making robo-phone calls on his behalf and against his rivals.
In the latest effort by an outside group to influence the contest, Common Sense Issues Inc. plans to reach voters through direct mail and advertising and to supplement Huckabee’s get-out-the-vote operation in the state. Rival campaigns have said the automatic calls affiliated with the pro-Huckabee effort have planted negative information about their candidates with recipients of the calls.
Patrick Davis, the group’s executive director, called the phone calls "personalized educational artificial intelligence" and said they are primarily meant to promote Huckabee. Some campaigns have referred to the calls as push-polling, in which callers say they are conducting a public opinion poll before giving out negative information.
The group is operating under an exemption to campaign finance laws that permits some nonprofit corporations from electioneering with the benefit of unlimited contributions from wealthy donors.
Davis said the group had not coordinated with the Huckabee campaign. Such coordination would amount to a violation of the law.
On Monday, Huckabee urged an end to the calls.
"Our campaign has nothing to do with the push-polling and I wish they would stop," Huckabee said while campaigning in Iowa. "We don’t want this kind of campaigning because it violates the spirit of our campaign. I don’t want to become president because I disabled the other candidates, I want to become president because I am the best candidate."
The outside effort comes as Huckabee has pulled even with Mitt Romney in Iowa. Huckabee’s fundraising has lagged significantly behind other top Republicans, adding to the possible impact of the Common Sense Issues campaign.
"It is particularly offensive that a Mike Huckabee advocacy group would resort to a shadow effort using large sums of unregulated soft money to attack candidates by name with these reprehensible calls," Romney spokesman Matt Rhoades said. "Governor Huckabee cannot just stand by and feign outrage as these coordinated attacks are made in his name and for his benefit."
Davis, a Colorado-based political consultant and former National Republican Senatorial Campaign political director, said the group is placing calls supporting Huckabee in other states as well, but he would not identify them.
The group registered earlier this year as a 501(c)4 nonprofit corporation with the Internal Revenue Service. It also has registered as an independent expenditure group with the Federal Election Commission. Its president is Harold "Zeke" Swift, listed as a member of the host committee for a Cincinnati, Ohio, fundraiser for Huckabee.
Swift, in an interview, said supporting Huckabee "was not our focus at the time we formed the organization."
An independent expenditure report filed by Common Sense Issues last week with the FEC lists a single $40,000 donation to the group from Mark West, an Ooltewah, Tenn., Huckabee supporter who donated $2,300 to Huckabee’s campaign in September. It lists expenditures on behalf of Huckabee of $31,860 for grass-roots consulting.
The group’s predecessor is Common Sense Ohio, a group financed by wealthy Republican donors that Swift helped form and that was active in several Senate races in 2006. Common Sense Ohio was criticized last year for placing negative phone calls about Democratic candidates.
"We use a very sophisticated interactive phone technique that starts right where a person is and depending upon their answer provides additional information of one sort or another," Swift said.
The calls are automated and shift scripts if a recipient of a call expresses support for a different candidate. Asked if the calls were providing negative information about candidates, Swift said, "It all depends on your view of it."
The calls direct listeners to the Web site TrustHuckabee.com, which lists itself as a project of Common Sense Issues.
Under campaign finance laws, the group can advocate for a candidate and conduct get-out-the-vote campaigns as long as it files a report with the Federal Election commission identifying its expenditures and its donors.
The money spent on such a political effort would have to come only from individuals, not corporations or unions. Furthermore, the group would have to show the IRS and the FEC that its major purpose was not influencing elections.
Common Sense Issues bills itself as a grass-roots lobbying organization dedicated to educating people on public policy issues.
"If the major purpose is to influence elections, it is a PAC," said campaign finance lawyer Jan Baran, a former general counsel for the Republican National Committee. "If the major purpose is something else it is not a PAC. Therefore, the question is what is the major purpose of Common Sense? Does it do things other than support Huckabee?"
As a political action committee, a group’s donors could give no more than $5,000 for each election cycle.