Monday, July 24, 2006

Follow the money: GOP primary a battle of fundraising

By Susan J. Demas
Jackson Citizen Patriot

Barry Fry has never shaken hands with Tim Walberg and can't punch a ballot for him.

But the retired businessman from New Jersey didn't hesitate to scribble $513 in checks to the Tipton Republican, who has banked about $600,000 in his quest to unseat U.S. Rep. Joe Schwarz, R-Battle Creek.


"(Walberg is) endorsed by the Club for Growth," explained Fry, 63, referring to the political group that advocates lower taxes, expansion of free trade and other conservative positions. "He's going to Washington, and what he does has an awful lot of impact on all of us."

The 7th District GOP primary on Aug. 8 has vaulted into the national spotlight, pitting a moderate freshman congressman endorsed by President Bush against a conservative pastor.

The Washington-based Club for Growth has bundled more than $400,000 in donations to Walberg, a former state lawmaker who touts he has never voted for a tax hike.

Schwarz isn't hurting for money, either. Almost 60 percent of the lawmaker's $1.25 million is from political action committees, with GOP leadership and health professionals topping the list.

"Rep. Schwarz is a valued member of the Republican Congress and we support him fully," said Brunson Taylor, spokeswoman for House Majority Whip Roy Blunt's Rely on Your Beliefs PAC, which donated $9,999.

But Schwarz isn't taking any chances. He has also tapped U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who have hit the campaign trail trumpeting Schwarz's pedigree as a physician, Vietnam veteran and former CIA operative.

Power of the people?

Walberg has money. Schwarz has even more -- and plenty of political muscle, too.
So where does that leave the voters of the 7th District?

Out of the loop and out of luck, says Rich Robinson, executive director for the Lansing-based Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

"You have people contributing to someone they couldn't pick out of a police lineup," Robinson said. "That has a way of taking away the power of the local constituency.
"It's hard to square that with democracy."

Seat for sale?

Walberg has managed the rare feat of mounting a serious challenge to a well-known incumbent, thanks to an aggressive fundraising effort.

That's where Club for Growth's national network of 36,000 members kicks in. Since 1999, they have funneled tens of millions of dollars to pro-business candidates, including U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., and Brad Smith in the 2004 7th District GOP primary.

"If I go to Congress and lower taxes, reduce pork-barrel spending and kill the tax codes of the IRS," Walberg said, "you can say, 'Yep, I'm bought and paid for by them.' " also is Club for Growth's brainchild, as is a corresponding TV ad campaign that's dominated the airwaves for several months.

"They're a big player," said Albert May, George Washington University communications professor and campaign finance expert. "They're a very aggressive organization in the use of the 527 (tax-exemption) vehicle."

That's landed the group in hot water. The Federal Election Commission sued Club for Growth last year for not registering as a political committee and is awaiting a judge's ruling.

Schwarz's team filed an FEC complaint Thursday, claiming Walberg's campaign broke the law by hiring a Club-for-Growth pollster.

The incumbent also contends Walberg's campaign finance reports filed last week are missing $100,000 in expenses. Walberg's campaign manager, Joe Wicks, said staff will submit a new report including items accidentally omitted.

Homegrown support

Schwarz has a not-so-secret weapon come Election Day, his spokesman says.

Three-quarters of Walberg's war chest is filled from out-of-state donors -- compared to 13 percent of Schwarz's funds.

"Ours come from the people of Michigan," said Schwarz press secretary John Truscott. "They're the people who know him best, who live in the neighborhoods and who he constantly tries to help."

Schwarz's financial power base comes from Battle Creek, Ann Arbor and Marshall. Walberg's top three donor areas are Adrian; Naples, Fla.; and Pittsburgh.

The challenger fires back that Schwarz's numbers are puffed up by in-state PACs, making him beholden to special interests such as unions. Two percent of Walberg's funds come from PACs.

Americans for a Republican Majority, former U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay's PAC shut down this month by the FEC, shelled out $10,000 to Schwarz.

The congressman's camp dismissed criticism.

"Joe Schwarz does what he thinks is right for the people of the district," Truscott said. "People know that."

Both candidates agree that spending has spun out of control. Yet both keep squeezing donors for more cash during the home stretch.

"I hate the fact that I've had to raise $600,000," Walberg said last week. "But that's what you have to do to clearly get the message out."

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