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Group funding GOP campaigns had its origins backing tobacco

Democratic Rep. Allen Boyd of Florida is the target of attack ads paid for by the Center for Individual Freedom, founded in 1998 to counter restrictions on smoking.

October 24, 2010|By Kim Geiger and Tom Hamburger, Tribune Washington Bureau

Reporting from Tallahassee, Fla. — Rep. Allen Boyd of Florida has marshaled some key advantages for his seventh reelection race: He has outraised his GOP opponent, and has the rare distinction of being a Democrat endorsed by both the National Rifle Assn. and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

But Boyd also voted in favor of the healthcare overhaul this year, and like other Democratic incumbents now faces a barrage of attacks by little-known conservative groups funded by anonymous donors.

The latest came last week from an organization called the Center for Individual Freedom, created more than a decade ago by former tobacco industry executives who sought to counter government restrictions on smoking.

Now headquartered in the top floor of a townhouse in Alexandria, Va., the center recently launched more than $2 million worth of ads in the districts of nine vulnerable Democrats, including Boyd, with more possible in coming days.

The group is no longer associated with tobacco or smoking. In recent years, its $5-million to $7-million annual budget has been focused on an eclectic range of topics. It has promoted a constitutional amendment to balance the federal budget, attacked the Mongolian government's industrial policy and criticized a tray mat featuring an overweight Statue of Liberty that appeared in the Subway chain's European restaurants.

Last week's expenditure marks the group's first foray into congressional races. Its top officials refuse to say who is paying for the ads, creating another mystery during a fall campaign marked by anonymous, high-priced attacks against Democrats in swing districts like Boyd's.

In one ad, a cartoon cement block of "debt" crashes around average citizens as an announcer intones: "We got generations of debt, but where did the money and jobs go? Just ask Allen Boyd."

Today, Boyd's race is listed as a toss-up by both parties.

Boyd's campaign manager, JR Starrett, refused to discuss any of the outside groups: "We do not engage any independent expenditures — we're focused on our opponent."

The Center for Individual Freedom was formed in 1998, and some of its early members were veterans of the tobacco industry's war on smoking rules, including lobbyist W. Thomas Humber. He led the National Smokers Alliance, once the leading opponent of anti-smoking rules, then announced the transfer of several million dollars of the group's assets to the center.

The organization has funded state-level campaigns for attorney general and for state court judges. It has participated in a wide array of lawsuits including challenges to campaign finance rules. This month it became active in congressional races in part because the unnamed members of the group are demanding action, said Jeffrey Mazzella, the center's president.

"The Obama agenda awakened a sleeping giant in this country," Mazzella said. "The American people are fed up with the reckless spending and overall growth of government, and they are seeking out groups like CFIF and others in the conservative movement to make their collective voices heard."

Also investing heavily in the race is Americans for Prosperity, a group started in part by oil and coal billionaire David Koch. Boyd has also seen ads run against him by groups with names like the 60 Plus Assn. and the Commission on Hope, Growth and Opportunity.

Such outside groups have spent more than $1 million airing attack ads against Boyd. Groups supporting the congressman have spent a combined $380,000.

Boyd, a skilled fundraiser, spent nearly $1.6 million buying airtime through the two-year election cycle, but the majority was spent before the general election campaign.

A spokesman for Steve Southerland, Boyd's opponent, acknowledged that spending by outside groups had helped the Republican's campaign.

A small-business owner from Panama City, Southerland was a founding member of a local "tea party" group. After defeating four other candidates in the GOP primary, Southerland has chipped away at Boyd's base of conservative Democrats and independents by linking the incumbent to Washington.

The advertising blitz has become so fierce, locals find it nearly impossible to watch TV or listen to the radio without hearing an ominous voice warn against the 14-year congressman. Some voters say they're overwhelmed by ads from outside groups.

"Most of the time, it's not the candidate," said Cory Couch, a Tallahassee dentist. "It's disheartening when all you do is see this constant political bashing by committees or whatever they want to call themselves."

One local car dealer became so fed up with the attack ads that he recently bought a silent spot. In black text across a yellow screen, it reads: "28.7 Seconds of QUIET."

kim.geiger@latimes.com

tom.hamburger@latimes.com

Times staff writer Matea Gold contributed to this report.

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