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How 501(c)'s on the right match the left's 527's

To the average person, it might seem that if the Democratic 527s are a cynical mechanism for evading the ban on soft money, then surely the GOP-leaning 501(c)s are even more so. How, then, does the Republican shadow party get away with it? First, while the 527s admit that their ads are meant to affect elections, the 501(c)s do not. Instead, they insist that they're running "issue ads" intended merely to rouse debate about specific issues, not get anyone elected or defeated. Legally, this is considered "grassroots lobbying," an activity on which 501(c)s can spend unlimited amounts of money.

Now, the IRS code wisely allows 501(c)s to spend some of their money on ads meant to affect elections. Otherwise, traditional membership groups like the NAACP or Concerned Women for America wouldn't be allowed to make their voices heard on a candidate's position on, say, voting rights or gay marriage. So the second legal test is whether a group's "primary purpose" is to affect elections. The Democratic 527s admit up front that electioneering is their primary purpose; indeed, that fact is built into the legal definition of a 527. But to merit 501(c) status, the GOP groups must--and do--insist that electioneering is not their primary purpose. Indeed, like most of the GOP shadow groups, AJS reports on its 2000 returns spending zero dollars on political activity.

This is a curious claim for a group like AJS [Americans for Job Security] to make, considering it spends 95 percent of its budget on campaign-season ads that mention candidates. Indeed, were you to compare almost any Democratic 527 spot to one run by the Republican 501(c), you would be hard pressed to explain why one is intended to influence an election and the other is not. Following the 2000 elections, University of Wisconsin political scientist Kenneth Goldstein surveyed the issue-ad campaigns run by dozens of outside groups. As part of the study, his student volunteers viewed a series of AJS spots and answered the question, "In your opinion, is the purpose of the ad to provide information about or urge action on a bill or issue, or is it to generate support or opposition for a particular candidate?" They found without exception that what they had seen fell into the second category. When I mentioned the study to [AJS's president] Mike Dubke, he responded, "I think that's ridiculous." -- "Bush's Secret Stash" by Nicholas Confessore (Washington Monthly)

Thanks to Craig Holman (who is quoted in the article) for the link.