The election is over, Congress has gone home, and politics is taking a breather. But in some states this month, it has begun to look like campaign season all over again.
With just a few votes in the House and Senate likely to determine the fate of such high-profile legislation as tax cuts, patients' rights and oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, interest groups have launched a television and radio advertising blitz aimed at wavering members of Congress home for the two-week Easter recess.
The barrage of spots demonstrates the extent to which the media-driven battle over issues and ideas has become a more or less permanent fixture in American politics, continuing long after elections are over or Congress adjourns.
In the latest flurry, labor unions and environmental and conservative groups are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on carefully targeted ads that directly or indirectly put pressure on members of Congress viewed as potential swing votes for battles still to come.
The Natural Resources Defense Council is rushing to finish a TV ad that takes President Bush to task for breaking a campaign pledge to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants "while members are still home doing their thing, having lunches and speaking at Rotary Clubs," said spokesman Alan Metrick.
Nothing is generating such intense use of commercials as the battle over Bush's tax cut proposal. The Senate passed a resolution trimming the cut before it adjourned April 6, but the process is far from over. Congress will vote on a version of the resolution drafted by House and Senate conferees after it returns. Later in the session, Congress will have to vote on a final budget and tax package.
In Vermont, television viewers and radio listeners are being barraged by dueling ads from the Service Employees union, which is fighting the Bush tax plan, and the Club for Growth, which favors tax cuts and limited government.
Paul Sands, general manager of WPTZ in Plattsburg, N.Y., the NBC affiliate that serves central Vermont, said the volume of ads was unusual in a nonelection year. The spots have run "hundreds of times," with a heavy concentration around news or programs that immediately precede or follow newscasts.
The main target of both groups is Sen. James M. Jeffords, a moderate Republican who voted to trim the Bush plan.
While the Service Employees union is trying to keep Jeffords on that course, a radio ad sponsored by the Club for Growth contends that the Vermont senator "hasn't met a tax he doesn't like."
Executive Director David Keating said the Club for Growth has budgeted about $1 million "to enforce the tax cut" this year through media buys. The current campaign, which also targets Sens. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), will cost between $100,000 and $200,000. Chafee and Specter also voted for the compromise tax plan.
"We want to signal a lot of other Republicans who might be thinking about voting against tax cuts that we're going to let people know about it back home," Keating said.
"Senator Jeffords has been in the middle of a number of hot situations and the target of numerous ad campaigns," said a spokesman for the Vermont senator. "Collectively, they have a negligible effect."
But Keating contends that advocacy advertising is highly effective. Although the TV ads began only on Thursday, "people are calling and saying they're glad someone's doing this," he said. Seven of the 28 freshman Republicans in the House were backed by Club for Growth advertising during last year's campaign, he added.
Vermont has also been targeted for radio ads supporting the Bush tax plan, sponsored by the United Seniors Association, a Fairfax, Va.-based organization that works on tax, Social Security, Medicare and prescription drug issues.
The ads, featuring former television personality Art Linkletter, mention Jeffords by name and call on him to back the president.
United Seniors has also targeted senators in Maine, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Rhode Island. "It's such a tight Senate that groups feel they have to keep some of these senators' feet to the fire," said Diana L. Banister, vice president of the public relations firm Craig Shirley & Associates, which also represents the Club for Growth.
The cost has been in the "six-digit range," Banister said. United Seniors is considering using television advertising in the next round of the tax cut fight.
Along with taxes, Bush's approach to the environment has galvanized a spate of advertising by environmental organizations.
A recent Natural Resources Defense Council commercial, which ran in 21 cable markets at a cost of about $500,000, was the organization's first-ever TV spot of that kind. "We're distressed at the ferocity with which this president is attacking every conceivable environmental protection there is," said NRDC communications director Metrick. "In times of an unusual attack an unusual defense is warranted."
The commercials ran in states of heavy NRDC membership, and in states where senators were viewed as "soft or movable" on issues of key importance to the council. The message was soft: "What do you call someone who would drill for oil on the Alaska [Arctic] National Wildlife Refuge? Mr. President." But the spot referred viewers to the NRDC's Web site, which provides fax and e-mail links to congressional offices and the White House. Later this month, the NRDC plans another televised message that criticizes Bush for breaking his promise on carbon dioxide emissions.
"We know people used our [Web site] to send faxes to senators and the president, so from our perspective it was effective," Metrick said.
Sierra Club spokesman Allen Mattison describes a club-sponsored commercial that recently ran in environmentally aware Oregon as "sort of a bank shot to get to Bush" through the state's GOP senator, Gordon Smith. The ad attacks Bush's plan to drill for oil in the Arctic wildlife refuge. "The idea is to persuade Smith to tell Bush that [his support for drilling] is hurting Smith politically in Oregon," Mattison said. "Bush hasn't shown much of a concern for listening to environmental groups, but he might listen to Senator Smith."
A radio ad that the Sierra Club ran in New Mexico's 1st Congressional District had an even narrower focus. The ad, which criticized the Bush administration's suspension of a regulation that would have reduced the permissible amount of arsenic in drinking water, was clearly calculated to embarrass Heather Wilson, the district's GOP congresswoman. Albuquerque, which is in the 1st District, has a well-publicized problem with arsenic in drinking water.
The Sierra Club has also weighed in on campaign finance, chiding Republican Sens. Smith of Oregon, Robert C. Smith (N.H.) and Tim Hutchinson (Ark.) for voting against the McCain-Feingold bill. The spot directly links environmental votes to campaign reform, suggesting that big contributors in the mining, oil and gas industries are getting their money's worth.
Dan Morgan, Washington Post. April 14, 2001
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