Eyeing Georgia, Organizing for Action May Have a Tea Party Problem

The Georgia Senate race might be closer than expected, in part because it could be a focus for Organizing for Action, the successor organization to President Obama's reelection campaign. Assuming OFA wants to walk the tricky legal line that got Tea Party groups in trouble with the IRS.

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The Georgia Senate race might be closer than expected. Not only because a poll shows that the leading Democrat in the race is starting strong, but also because it might be a focus for Organizing for Action, the 501(c)(4) successor organization to President Obama's reelection campaign. Assuming, that is, that OFA wants to walk the legal line that got so many Tea Party groups in trouble with the IRS in 2010.

It's easy to forget that in the modern political era Georgia's senators have been largely Democratic. Not just pro-Southern Dixiecrats either. Democrats, like Max Cleland, Zell Miller (sort of), and Sam Nunn. And by 2015, perhaps Michelle Nunn — daughter of Sam and currently the CEO of Points of Light, an organization derived from President George H. W. Bush's call for increased volunteerism.

In a Public Policy Polling poll released earlier this week, Nunn, perhaps due to name recognition, is competitive. She is leading or tied with each likely Republican candidate, although most voters aren't familiar with the names presented. As is always the case with early polls involving relatively unknown candidates, there's a lot of time for things to change. While the state leans Republican, The New York Times' Nate Silver noted earlier this year that the state's diversity could be an opportunity for Democrats.

Which is where Organizing for Action might come in. After the 2012 election, a number of campaign staff from the Obama team helped found the organization, a 501(c)(4) non-profit focused on advancing the president's agenda. Once it worked out a few kinks, the organization began its organizing efforts earlier this year — a not insignificant part of which was fundraising.

On Wednesday, Politico reported that OFA was considering becoming active in the Georgia Senate race.

Several political operatives and potential donors told POLITICO that OFA Executive Director Jon Carson made the pitch to help Nunn in various discussions this spring.

OFA Chairman Jim Messina has also held discussions with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee about mobilizing Obama supporters in Republican-held districts in races the party hopes will be competitive, according to a Democratic official.

This is a very vague report, to be sure, though Politico also notes that two people retracted their discussions with the outlet after Carson contacted them.

As OFA is very, very well aware, 501(c)(4) organizations and political campaigns are a dicey mix. Federal tax law allows a (c)(4) organization to collect contributions without any limit, and without listing its donors, which has proven irresistible to political groups, especially when combined with the vagueness of the prohibition on political activity. (OFA, however, does identify its donors by donation tier.) The law says (c)(4)s cannot have political activity as its "primary" effort, allowing for a lot of subjective interpretation of what is and isn't allowable. The kerfuffle that arose earlier this year after Tea Party groups argued — correctly, as it turned out — that they were subject to unusual scrutiny from the IRS was that agency's attempt to muddle through the fuzziness of the law.

In a response to Politico, a spokesperson for OFA was adamant that the group was not partisan and would not be participating in "electoral politics." Which is not typically how such groups work. The prohibition for (c)(4) groups is that they can't expressly advocate. But if Nunn is facing Rep. Phil Gingrey in next year's Senate race (as seems possible), a (c)(4) could run a series of TV ads or send mail reinforcing how Nunn and Gingrey feel about particular issues. Georgia voters could be blanketed with arguments about how much better Nunn is for working families (or whatever), paid for by OFA, as long as the organization 1) doesn't say "vote for Michelle Nunn" and 2) doesn't make such "issues awareness" the primary work that it does. (Politico notes that OFA has not yet filed its 501(c)(4) application, but that, oddly, is a technicality.)

The Politico article, however, doesn't suggest that's the plan, just that Carson and Messina have discussed getting involved. It is more than likely that the group will, in some way; after all, Georgia is a big state regardless of its Senate race and OFA is trying to spur pro-Obama activists wherever it can. But it is also the case that people who give money for political action like to also give money to political campaigns. An OFA sales pitch that includes discussion of how the group will help Democrats retake the Senate — if such a pitch was made — would almost certainly inspire faster checkbook-reaching than otherwise.

By all signs, next year's election will be pivotal for control of the Senate. For a group that is explicit in its push to help the president advance his agenda, a Nunn victory would be an enormous boon. But the trickiness and legal issues around carrying the energy and resources people poured into Obama 2012 into Nunn 2014 may prove prohibitive.

Update, 12:45 p.m.: In a statement to The Atlantic Wire, Organizing For Action's Katie Hogan reiterated:

Organizing for Action does not participate in electoral politics. We are not partisan. We are an issue advocacy group that works on the agenda the American people voted for in 2012 from a better bargain for the middle class to the comprehensive immigration reform that will grow our economy.

Photo: Michelle Nunn speaks before a banner calling for change. (AP)

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.