CPPR funneled money to multiple groups, Noble says, both to protect the anonymity of donors and because IRS regulations prohibit any individual (c)(4) group from spending more than 50 percent of its time on candidate-related political activity.
In 2010, though, the activity of the groups was extraordinarily well-orchestrated, with no two groups airing ads in the same congressional district. Attack ads against Democratic incumbents blanketed the country: The 60 Plus Association spent to air ads in Arizona’s 1st congressional district, Florida’s 2nd and 24th, Indiana’s 2nd, Minnesota’s 8th, New York’s 20th, Ohio’s 16th, Pennsylvania’s 3rd, and Wisconsin’s 3rd and 8th, for example, while Americans for Job Security put up ads in New York’s 24th, North Carolina’s 2nd and 8th, Ohio’s 18th, and Virginia’s 9th. The American Future Fund put up spots in Alabama’s 2nd, Colorado’s 7th, New Mexico’s 1st, and Washington’s 2nd.
To craft and produce the ads, Noble brought in GOP pollster and wordsmith Frank Luntz and ad guru Larry McCarthy, the latter famous for producing the 1988 Willie Horton ad that helped to sink Michael Dukakis’s presidential campaign.
In a series of focus groups, Luntz concluded that ads with an “ideological” feel to them wouldn’t work. “They weren’t credible or relevant to people in their day-to-day lives,” he says. “There was one political operative who thought rationing was the big issue. That wasn’t conceivable to people.” Neither was talk of death panels.
Instead, Luntz found that emotional appeals were more effective and that women were considered more credible than men on the issue. “Women are more focused on quality of life and peace of mind,” Luntz says. This year, all of AFP’s testimonial ads feature middle-class women speaking from their homes: Donna Marzullo and Helen DePrima in New Hampshire, Shannon Wendt and Julie Boonstra in Michigan, and a woman identified as Wanda in Marion, Ark. (Fact-checkers have called into question the accuracy of the testimonials delivered in some of these ads, as well as Reid’s contention that they are “absolutely false” and “made up from whole cloth.”)
“What Frank did,” Noble says, “is he took political guys like me and like Larry and had to kind of shake us into understanding that we needed to treat this differently than we would a political campaign, that we had to do this not by beating someone over the head but by persuading.” Luntz, he says, “took the strengths of our arguments and amplified them.”
CPPR’s initial efforts were aimed at preventing Obamacare’s passage, and one of the first ads Noble and McCarthy produced was a personalized warning about the dangers of nationalized health care. Over Memorial Day weekend in 2009, it went on the air in eight states that were home to crucial members of the Senate Finance Committee — including Republicans Susan Collins and Chuck Grassley — which was responsible for voting the bill that would become the Affordable Care Act out of committee and into the full Senate.
In the ad, “Survivor,” paid for by one of AFP’s 501(c)(4) arms, PatientsUnitedNow, Ontario native Shona Holmes told viewers about her experience with the Canadian health-care system. “I survived a brain tumor, but if I had relied on my government for health care, I’d be dead,” she said. “I am a Canadian citizen, and as my brain tumor got worse, my government health-care system told me I had to wait six months to see a specialist. In six months, I would have died.” The ad blanketed the airwaves on Fox News; CNN’s Dana Bash flew to Ontario to interview Holmes and tell her story; and Jake Tapper, then of ABC News, took questions about her case to Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper.
Noble and his team at CPPR, which functioned out of the office of his consulting firm, DC London, in Washington, D.C., also worked with Americans for Prosperity and several other groups to turn out voters opposed to the emerging bill at the town-hall forums that senators were hosting in their home states during the 2009 August recess. “We knew we had to make that summer absolute hell,” Noble says.
Local AFP chapters activated their networks, and CPPR placed calls to seniors who were considered Republican base voters, people over the age of 65 who had voted consistently in GOP primaries, urging them to come out to the town halls and arming them with talking points. The Cook Political Report wondered in September 2009 whether 2010 would prove to be the year “angry white seniors” decided the election in favor of Republicans, much the way “angry white males” were said to have turned the tide in 1994.
“We packed these town halls with people who were just screaming about this thing,” Noble recalls. Scenes from those meetings, of constituents blowing up at their elected representatives and of public forums descending into chaos, blanketed the news throughout August.
At a forum in Philadelphia where Arlen Specter (since deceased) appeared with Health and Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius, the crowd, with spectators lining the walls, exploded when Specter admitted that he hadn’t personally read the legislation — which ran over 1,000 pages — but instead had assigned it out to his staff. “We expected we could turn out 250 people there,” Noble says. “Over 1,000 showed up.”
“You have to make judgments very fast,” Specter explained as the audience shouted him down. Sebelius didn’t make any friends when she jumped to his defense. “The Senate bill isn’t written,” she said, “so don’t boo the senator for not reading a bill that isn’t written.” The crowd booed her in turn.
CPPR’s strategy changed when the House passed the Affordable Care Act and President Obama signed it into law in March 2010. Noble and his team set their sights on returning the House to the GOP.
“We made a deliberate recommendation that you gotta focus on the House,” Noble says. “That’s where this bill passed. Pelosi broke so many arms of Democrats that had no business voting for that bill. Obamacare clearly was the watershed moment that provided the juice to deliver the majority back to the Republicans in the House.”