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."
Democrats don't buy it. Some are convinced that 60 Plus's support comes from the drug industry. Pharma representatives deny that flat-out—the rumor exists because Pharma gave the group money in 2002, but it hasn't written a check since then. That only deepens the mystery, because the group's tax forms show little evidence of campaigns to tap millions of people for funds.
"This 5.5 million number is, excuse my language, a crock of shit," says David Donnelly, who monitors third-party groups for the liberal-leaning Public Campaign Action Fund. "There's no way this organization has 5.5 million supporters."
So the cycle continues: Dismiss 60 Plus, realize how much money it can get access to, attempt to discredit it, fail, and then dismiss them again. It never works, but that doesn't stop liberals from trying it. The success of 60 Plus belies its public profile or size. It operates out of a small suite of offices in downtown Alexandria, Va., across the Potomac from Washington. It has existed for 18 years but never emerged as what it claims to be—a conservative answer to AARP—because it focuses on lobbying and media appearances, not services.
"Every few years at least one group is created as the conservative or progressive alternative to AARP," shrugs AARP spokesman Andrew Nannis, "depending on which high-profile issue is being debated and perhaps which party is in power. So we're used to it."
So 60 Plus usually gets ignored. Its chairman, a veteran of campaigns and direct-mail fundraising named Jim Martin, has become a sort of Tea Party Zelig. He has appeared at every big event put on by the movement—the 9/12 rallies, local rallies, Tea Party Express rallies, and conferences sponsored by the American Conservative Union and Ralph Reed's Faith & Freedom Coalition. Now and in coming days, he is part of a "Spending Revolt" bus tour that's hitting Democratic districts.
The personal touch pays off. The people who star in 60 Plus ads come, in some cases, straight from the Tea Party. Tom Whitmore, a Virginia Tea Party activist who appeared in an ad earlier this year, helped write the script for the ad he appeared in. "They had our contact info," he says, "and asked if any of us knew any concerned seniors. I said, 'I'm one!' "
Martin—unlike, say, Grover Norquist, Karl Rove, or Dick Armey—is everywhere and yet invisible. When he speaks, people politely listen. Martin's speeches or TV appearances are games of free association, with stories about his career intermingling with anger at Washington and attacks on the AARP. These are usually accompanied by the wiry Martin, sporting a thin, white mustache reminiscent of Ted Turner's, holding up a bumper sticker that dubs the seniors' group the "Association Against Retired People." A Martin speech will veer from stories of employing a young George W. Bush to predicting the doom of Harry Reid ("Let me tell ya, he is toast") to taking credit for popularizing the phrase "death tax" to describe the estate tax.
It's brilliant. The media ignore Martin and his group. Then—surprise—the group emerges with plenty of money to attack Democrats who aren't on its side. They all assume Martin is irrelevant when he is anything but. At a July 15 tribute dinner celebrating Martin's "50 years of political activism," those paying tribute included George W. Bush.
"I gave Jim a nickname: Buddha," Bush said in a videotaped message. "I chose it because he enlightened me so much."
Bush's message highlights another problem for Democrats. It may well be that there's no good way to attack a group that they've said for years is irrelevant, punching above its weight, when that group suddenly becomes a reservoir for donations to beat the Democrats. But beyond that, how do you demonize a group led not by Evil Genius Karl Rove or Angry Scold Dick Armey, but by a cuddly Buddha like Jim Martin?
"He's a good solid person who's very consistent in advocacy for free market ideas," says Grace-Marie Turner, president of the conservative Galen Institute, and an occasional event partner of Martin. "I've been perplexed, wondering where they get the resources to do the ads they do. I can't find the sources. But I'm glad they do them."
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at him @daveweigel.