A brand-new conservative group calling itself Americans for a Strong Defense and financed by anonymous donors is running advertisements urging Democratic senators in five states to vote against Chuck Hagel, President Barack Obama's nominee to be secretary of defense, saying he would make the United States "a weaker country."
Another freshly minted and anonymously backed organization, Use Your Mandate, which presents itself as a liberal gay rights group but purchases its television time through a prominent Republican firm, is attacking Hagel as "anti-gay," "anti-woman" and "anti-Israel" in ads and mailers.
Those groups are joining at least five others that are organizing to stop Hagel's confirmation, a goal even they acknowledge appears to be increasingly challenging. But the effort comes with a built-in consolation prize should it fail: depleting some of Obama's political capital as he embarks on a new term with fresh momentum.
The media campaign to scuttle Hagel's appointment, unmatched in the annals of modern presidential Cabinet appointments, reflects the continuing effects of the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision, which loosened campaign finance restrictions and was a major reason for the record spending by outside groups in the 2012 election. All told, these independent and largely secretly financed groups spent well over $500 million in an attempt to defeat Obama and the Democrats, a failure that seemed all the greater given the huge amounts spent.
While the campaign against Hagel, a Republican, is not expected to cost more than a few million dollars, it suggests that the operatives running the independent groups and the donors that finance them many of whom are millionaires and billionaires with ideological and business agendas that did not go away after the election are ready to fight again.
"We were anxious to get back into the battle," said Nick Ryan, a Republican strategist and the founder of the American Future Fund, which started as a small, Iowa-based political committee in 2007 and has grown larger since, taking a leading role now against Hagel. "Post-election we have new battle lines being drawn with the president; he kicks it off with these nominations and it made sense for us."
The outside activity is not confined to Republicans. Obama's campaign apparatus has transformed itself into a nonprofit political group, though it said it would disclose the names of its donors (and it is not getting involved in the Hagel fight).
After Obama won re-election in November and Democrats kept their majority in the Senate and made inroads in the House, Republican Party officials and senior strategists with conservative outside groups predicted that some of the big financiers of the larger outside efforts would pull back and reassess their involvement and whether their millions were wasted. But while the donors have said they will insist that the groups they finance find lessons in last year's losses, their interest and stakes in what happens in Washington have certainly not waned.
For instance, the biggest individual financier of the so-called super PACs that sought to defeat Obama, Sheldon Adelson, is so invested in the fight over Hagel that he has reached out directly to Republican senators to urge them to hold the line against his confirmation, which would be almost impossible to stop with six Republican "yes" votes and a unified Democratic caucus.
Whatever its chances of success, the blitz against Hagel is of a sort that has generally been reserved for elections and some Supreme Court nominations. The last major Cabinet skirmish, over President George W. Bush's nomination of John Bolton as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, had no comparable outside media blitz.
Though goaded along by a phone campaign organized by the political action arm of the liberal group MoveOn, Democrats succeeded in blocking him in the Senate, forcing Bush to appoint him during a congressional recess.
That was before the Citizens United decision.
The most mysterious of the new groups is Use Your Mandate. Portraying itself as a gay rights group, it has sent mailers to voters in seven states including New York, New Jersey, Maryland and Montana and run television ads against Hagel in New York and Washington. Established gay rights activists have expressed skepticism about the group's authenticity.
It has no website and it only lists as its address a post office box in New York. But paperwork filed with the Federal Communications Commission link it back to Tusk Strategies, a bipartisan political group founded by Bradley Tusk, a former strategist for Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York.
Tusk would only identify its financiers as Democratic "gay and LGBT people who have been active in campaigns around the country."
Yet federal records show that Use Your Mandate uses Del Cielo Media, an arm of one of the most prominent Republican ad-buying firms in the country, Smart Media, with clients that have included the Emergency Committee for Israel.