Sen. Barack Obama has launched an all-out effort to block a Republican billionaire’s efforts to tie him to domestic and foreign terrorists in a wave of negative television ads.
Obama’s campaign has written the Department of Justice demanding a criminal investigation of the “American Issues Project,” the vehicle through which Dallas investor Harold Simmons is financing the advertisements. The Obama campaign — and tens of thousands of supporters — also is pressuring television networks and affiliates to reject the ads. The effort has met with some success: CNN and Fox News are not airing the attacks.
Obama has also launched his own response ad, directly addressing Simmons' attempt to link him to domestic terror.
The project is “a knowing and willful attempt to violate the strictures of federal election law,” Obama general counsel Bob Bauer wrote to Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Keeney last week in a letter provided to Politico. Bauer argued that by advocating Obama’s defeat, the ad should be subject to the contribution limits of federal campaign law, not the anything-goes regime of issue advocacy.
Bauer’s letter called on the Justice Department to open “an investigation of the American Issues Project; its officers and directors; and its anonymous donors, whoever they may be.”
“This is a sad ploy to circumvent the First Amendment by a campaign who has no arguments with the merits of our ad. It’s the classic maneuver: If you can’t win on the merits, file a lawsuit,” said a spokesman for the American Issues Project, Christian Pinkston, who said his group's non-profit status allowed it to participate in elections as long as it does a majority of policy work, which it plans to do.
A spokeswoman for Keeney, Laura Sweeney, declined to comment on Bauer’s letter.
The Obama campaign plans to punish the stations that air the ad financially, an Obama aide said, organizing his supporters to target the stations that air it and their advertisers.
But the ad continues to air widely. Evan Tracey, who tracks campaign advertising at TNS Media Intelligence, said it has been broadcast 150 times in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Michigan. Federal Election Commission reports indicate that Simmons has spent more than $2.8 million buying ads.
Obama’s campaign has written a pair of letters to station managers carrying the ads.
The letter calls the ad’s attempt to link Obama to terrorism “an appalling lie, a disgraceful smear of the lowest kind on the senator’s patriotism and commitment to the rule of law.”
Airing the ad “is inconsistent with your station’s obligations under Federal Communications Commission regulations,” the letter continues, saying Simmons’ group lacks formal incorporation.
One large group of network affiliates, the Sinclair Broadcast Group — which aired an documentary attacking John Kerry in 2004 — has been running the ads, Obama aides said. The campaign has launched a special effort to pressure Sinclair.
“Obama supporters have now sent more than 93,000 e-mails to the Sinclair stations that have decided to run the ad,” said Obama’s spokesman Tommy Vietor. “Other stations that follow Sinclair’s lead should expect a similar response from people who don’t want the political discourse cheapened with these false, negative attacks.”
Spokesmen for Sinclair, CNN and Fox didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The ad focuses on Obama’s relationship with Bill Ayers, a Hyde Park acquaintance at whose home Obama attended a gathering early in his political career. Ayers is a complicated figure: professor and adviser to the mayor of Chicago despite not having repented his past as a domestic terrorist with the Weather Underground.
"How much do your really know about Barack Obama? What does he really believe?" asks the ad, which also uses imagery from the Al-Qaeda terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
"Why would Barack Obama be friends with someone who bombed the Capitol and is proud of it?" asks the ad’s narrator.
Its financier, Simmons, who made his first fortune in chain pharmacies, was a major donor to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the group that damaged Kerry in 2004 by questioning his patriotism. He has raised more than $50,000 for Obama's rival, Sen. John McCain, though there’s no evidence that his anti-Obama effort has McCain’s explicit blessing.
Obama has launched a response ad, which addresses McCain directly, and will air in Ohio, Tracey said.
"With all our problems, why is John McCain talking about the '60s, trying to link Barack Obama to radical Bill Ayers?" says Obama’s ad. "McCain knows Obama denounced Ayers' crimes, committed when Obama was just 8 years old."
McCain’s camp, meanwhile, appears to welcome the controversy.
“The fact that [Obama] is launching his own convention by defending his long association with a man who says he didn't bomb enough U.S. targets tells us more about Barack Obama than any of tonight's speeches will,” said McCain spokesman Brian Rogers.