12:15 pm Mar. 22, 20121
Wendy Long, the Manhattan attorney who hopes to be a U.S. senator, can't come anywhere close to the incumbent, Kirsten Gillibrand, in terms of name recognition. She's not even the best known candidate among Gillibrand's would-be Republican challengers, since minor-celebrity congressman Bob Turner got into the race.
But she does have something Turner doesn't: deep, longstanding ties into a national network of conservative contributors and activists, a vestige of her days lobbying for conservative judges.
On Monday, after coasting to the Conservative Party nomination in Manhattan, Long said she wasn't worried about her ability to raise the money necessary to compete with Gillibrand, who had $8 million in her campaign account at the end of December, and has been raising aggressively since then, in part by using her Republican challengers as a foil.
"I'm not concerned about it at all," she told a small group of reporters on the tenth floor of the New York Athletic Club.
Not that any candidate would profess to be concerned about such a thing, even facing a fund-raising juggernaut like Gillibrand. Especially now: The current crop of Republican Senate challengers is hoping the new avenues opened up by the Citizens United decision will help separate them from the shoestring New York Republican campaigns of the past and help them keep up with the better-established candidate, in the same way that a few wealthy donors have managed to keep alive the under-funded presidential ambitions of Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich.
As it stands, none of the Republican challengers is likely to get much help from the the national Republican Party, which is prioritizing the more traditional battleground states in its effort to regain control of the Senate. (Gillibrand is polling well, and the Cook Political Report lists New York as "solidly Democratic.")
So what the Republican candidate here needs, as Santorum and Gingrich have demonstrated, are big donors willing to make investments based on ideology rather than actual probability of winning.
Long's proposition is that her work as a judicial activist organizing the opposition to non-conservative Supreme Court nominees will give her a particular advantage in attracting independent expenditures.
Long served as counsel to the Judicial Crisis Network (back when it was the Judicial Confirmation Network) and worked closely with a number of conservative ideological groups to support George W. Bush's court nominees, and later, to oppose, President Obama's picks.
In 2005, Long appeared at a press conference (along with Iowa Representative Steve King) to announce a joint ad campaign with Progress for America, a conservative nonprofit that pioneered some of the same independent expenditures now undertaken by super PACs. Progress for America was aggressively involved in supporting Bush in 2004, and its Voter Fund was later fined $750,000 by the FEC for not registering as a political action commmittee, and raising funds in excess of the legal limits.
The Progress for America Voter Fund eventually disbanded, but some its principals formed other affiliated nonprofits that ran negative ads against Obama in 2008, focusing in particular on his ties to the former Weather Underground member Bill Ayers. Long's Judicial Confirmation Network was part of that general effort, airing an ad that highlighted Obama's ties to Ayers, Tony Rezko and Reverend Jeremiah Wright, which was sufficiently provocative that it drew a response ad from Joe Biden.
Outside organizations could have an even greater effect under the new rules, post-Citizens United, and Long's aggressive focus on a conservative interpretation of the Constitution—she clerked for Justice Clarence Thomas—could, perhaps, prove attractive to wealthy conservatives, who have swamped Democrats in contributing to super PACs this cycle.
"Her work on Republican and conservative causes throughout the years, gives her really a unique sort of access and tie-in to the institutional and ideological fund-raisers which often drive these super PACs," said David Catalfamo, a spokesman and strategist for her campaign.
"I think she's clearly the candidate who's in the best place to realize the benefit of that. And we expect after we get through the primary that those forces would be in play and would have a stake in her race, and more importantly in the ideas she talks about."
But the campaigns are limited in how directly they can make their pitch for independent expenditures. By law, campaigns can't "solicit," nor "direct" donors to outside organizations, though the prohibitions are widely regarded as laughably loose.
Gillibrand, for her part, is taking a firm stance against super PACs. On Wednesday morning, she signed on as a co-sponsor to a new version of the DISCLOSE Act, which has been pushed by Chuck Schumer too, and would require greater transparency of super PAC finances.
"At a minimum what we have to accomplish is require the disclosure, require the transparency, require at the end of an ad, saying, 'Hi, I'm Joe CEO and I approve this message,' in the same way that every candidate has to," Gillibrand told Tina Brown last month.