A liberal 527 tacks to left by attacking from the right

The Senate Accountability Project (SAP), an independent 527 group bankrolled by a trial lawyer, has attacked four Republican senators in television advertisements for supporting a bill that would create a government-managed trust fund to compensate victims of asbestos-related illnesses.

Mark Iola, a Dallas-based trial lawyer who founded SAP this year, said he spent $450,000 to air advertisements against Sens. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), Jeff Sessions (Ala.), Sam Brownback (Kansas) and Tom Coburn (Okla.).

Iola, who raised more than $50,000 for Democratic Sen. John Kerry’s unsuccessful presidential bid, takes a unique and some say misleading approach against the asbestos litigation’s supporters.

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Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kansas)


Ads produced by 527s, named for a clause in the tax code allowing them to raise unlimited sums of money as long as they do not coordinate with an election campaign, gained attention in 2004 because of their compelling imagery and sharp tone. But their arguments were often predictable.

SAP’s ads are far from predictable, in that they attack their Republican targets from the right rather than the left. In the advertisement against Brownback, for example, the narrator starts by saying, “[Brownback] says he believes in the Kansas way, and states’ rights and limited government, but now supports the Washington way and the asbestos bailout bill.”

The narrator calls the trust fund a “liberal entitlement program that takes power away from ordinary citizens and gives it to bureaucrats in Washington.”

The ads have infuriated proponents of the asbestos legislation.

“At best, the ads were disingenuous [and] deceptive,” said Ken Boehm of the National Legal and Policy Center, a conservative government watchdog group. “It’s no secret where Mr. Iola’s politics are and he is putting ads out as if he’s some outraged conservative.”

But Iola told The Hill, “The ad is honest and cuts to the quick in their dishonesty. We thought it was interesting that conservatives who preach less government, smaller government would be articulating and voting for this bill.

“We just kind of think what you say when you run ought to be consistent with when you vote.” 

The legislation would create a $140 billion trust fund for victims of asbestos-related illnesses, which proponents say would allow victims to avoid long and costly lawsuits. The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 13-5 in May to create the trust fund, and the four GOP senators targeted by the ads voted for bill.

While senior Republicans, including Vice President Cheney, have pressed for Congress to figure out a way to stem lawsuits against corporations, some Republican senators were displeased with the bill. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Brownback raised questions, and Sessions and Brownback withheld their support until the last moment.

In the House, where passage is considered likely, Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.) asked the Congressional Budget Office to assess the bill’s cost. Former Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) has emerged as an opponent of the bill.

But because the four GOP senators voted in favor, the impact of the ads is questionable. A Grassley spokeswoman told The Des Moines Register that, even though Grassley is a co-sponsor, that “doesn’t mean he thinks it is a perfect bill.”

Sessions said in a statement, “I am very disappointed in these unfair trial-lawyer ads. … I will continue to work to make it a better bill.”

A spokesman for Coburn said his office received several dozen calls because of the ads, with most people expressing some confusion.

Counterintuitive political attacks, such as challenging Kerry’s Vietnam War record, are not uncommon. A 30-second television spot paid for by the National Republican Campaign Committee (NRCC) in 2002 for Rep. Robin Hayes (R-N.C.) highlighted the fact that he had voted against his own party.

While activity by 527s has tapered off since the election, it is difficult to quantify until next week, when the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) reports on the groups’ spending. But since January, Progress for America, the leading conservative 527, has run ads promoting Social Security privatization and President Bush’s judicial nominees. America Coming Together, the biggest liberal group, has said its goal is to spend $30 million influencing the 2006 midterm elections.

Iola said he wants to expand SAP, which already has a four-person staff and has hired Penn, Schoen & Berland’s David Ginsberg, a senior aide to former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), Vice President Al Gore in 2000 and Kerry.

“We really do think there has not been a group in progressive politics as it relates to the Senate,” Iola said.