The 60 Plus Association's conservative message isn't new, but its wealth is.
About four weeks ago, a 30-second political ad with a simple script and modest production values went on the air in Paul Kanjorski's northeast-Pennsylvania district. Three men appeared onscreen, trading off lines like relatives trying to tell the story of the family vacation.
"Washington liberals like Paul Kanjorski have betrayed Pennsylvania seniors," said the first man. "He voted for Nancy Pelosi's big government health care plan that costs a trillion dollars," said the second, interrupted by the third, who informed viewers that this plan "raises taxes and cuts $500 billion from Medicare."
"Seniors could lose their doctors," said the first man, bringing it home. He closed the ad, too. "Paul Kanjorski, you cut our Medicare. And this November, you're fired."
If you lived in Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, or Hazleton, you saw a lot of that ad. How often? Well, the 60 Plus Association bought $464,011 of airtime for it and another ad attacking Kanjorski over the economy. That's more than a third of what Kanjorki's opponent, Hazleton Mayor Lou Barletta, spent against him in 2008. Barletta is running against Kanjorski again this year.
So the Kanjorski campaign has responded with guns blazing. It called 60 Plus "a conservative front group that wants to destroy Social Security." The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee deployed its counsel to ask local stations to remove the ad. The effect? Nothing. Not only did 60 Plus stay on the air in Wilkes-Barre, it stayed on the air in all of the states where it bought ads—Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin, New York, Indiana, Tennessee, and Arizona. The average buy for an ad taking a Democrat apart over "Medicare cuts" was about $400,000.
The problem facing Democrats wasn't just this huge new influx of enemy cash. It was also that they had no idea where 60 Plus was getting that money from. (As a 501(c)4 organization, 60-Plus does not have to disclose its donors and only needs to detail where money has come from in annual 990 forms.) In 2006 and 2007, it spent $1.2 million and $1.9 million. Now it's dumping $6 million on ads?
"It's disturbing that anyone can start an organization called '60 Plus' or 'Americans for Jobs' or something and we don't know who's behind it," says Nicole Giambusso, Kanjorski's campaign spokeswoman.
It's the complaint of the 2010 Democrat. Can Democrats persuade anonymously funded groups to reveal their funding? No. Can they get watchdog groups to find out where the money comes from? No. The most they can do is imply that the mysterious ads are funded by foreigners, something they've been doing since President Obama chastised the Supreme Court's decision in the Citizens United case at the State of the Union address.
Still, 60 Plus plays a unique role in the Great Democratic Panic of 2010. Its funding sources are shadowy enough. When I asked both of the men who handled media for 60 Plus where the money came from, I got the same answer:
"The 60 Plus Association is funded by five and a half million citizen activists and others," said Tom Kise, the group's main spokesman.
"There are five and a half million supporters of 60 Plus," said Carl Forti, who handles the group's PR and media activity and once worked for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "And that's where the funding comes from."
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at him @daveweigel.