An Iowa-based group with members who helped produce some of the most effective political ads against Democrats in decades — Willie Horton in 1988 and Swiftboat Veterans for Truth in 2004 — is in the middle of Republican family feuds in Kentucky and California.
The 3-year-old American Future Fund made a big splash last winter by spending $1 million to aid Republican Scott Brown in the Massachusetts Senate race, and it now is active in at least 30 states, including Kentucky which has its primary Tuesday.
Nick Ryan, a veteran Republican activist who heads the Des Moines organization, said the group has about 450,000 members and reported 2007 fundraising of roughly $8 million.
The group has some of the best — and toughest — political talent in the nation.
Among the group's media strategists is Larry McCarthy, a Washington consultant who produced the Willie Horton commercial in the 1988 presidential campaign between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis. The ad focused on Horton, a convicted killer who was released from prison under a furlough program, backed by Dukakis, and then raped a woman.
The group's counsel is Ben Ginsberg, who was counsel to President George W. Bush's 2004 campaign and was tied to the group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which used largely disputed claims to question Democrat John Kerry's military record.
McCarthy did not return a message seeking comment, and Ginsburg responded to an e-mail by writing, "Sorry but I'm of no help to you on this one."
In one of its TV ads in the Kentucky Republican Senate primary, the group mocks candidate Rand Paul by showing a cuckoo clock while criticizing his views on coal mining and Iran's nuclear program.
In California, Ryan said the group is spending about $2 million for ads in a three-way Republican U.S. Senate race, with most criticizing front-runner Tom Campbell for not signing a pledge to oppose tax increases. California's primary is June 8.
"What we're doing is running an issue campaign around Tom Campbell," said Ryan. "We did that because of Tom Campbell's incredibly liberal record on taxes."
The American Future Fund has grand ambitions. Ryan sees it as a conservative version of MoveOn.org, a prominent liberal advocacy group.
"Generally the left has dominated that space and right-wing groups haven't come in to challenge them," Ryan said.
The group is incorporated under section 501(c)(4) of the internal revenue code, meaning it is not required to disclose individual donors. It is described as a group "which primarily focuses on nonpartisan education and advocacy on important national issues."
The group has followed up on its success in Massachusetts, where it ran TV and radio ads critical of Democratic candidate Martha Coakley, and moved onto other races.
Ryan said his group has spent about $5 million opposing the Democratic healthcare plan, including spending roughly $900,000 in 18 House races. All 18 of those are held by Democrats in districts John McCain carried in the 2008 presidential race.
Although the group focuses much of its attention on cutting taxes and in Massachusetts backed Brown, a candidate beloved by tea party advocates, the American Future Fund doesn't shy away from supporting those backed by mainstream Republicans.
In Kentucky, for example, the group has taken a strong stand against Paul, even though he has strong tea party backing. Paul faces Trey Grayson, the secretary of state who is backed by Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader and Kentucky's senior senator.
Ryan said the group opposes Paul because he hasn't been clear about how he would improve the state's economy and has said he didn't think Iran would be a threat if it obtained a single nuclear weapon.
Larry Forgy, a veteran Kentucky Republican activist who supports Paul, responded that he thinks the American Future Fund is simply doing McConnell's bidding by supporting what many view as the establishment candidate over Paul. He is the son of the son of Texas Rep. Ron Paul and has never held public office.
"It's just part of the clutter," said Forgy. "It's kind of a dirty trick."
In Indiana, the group spent $250,000 to help Rep. Dan Burton, a 14-term congressman who fended off a hard primary challenge by six rivals, including a tea party activist.
Ryan said his group usually picks the most conservative candidate, but it doesn't blindly oppose all incumbents.
"We decide to go to places where we think we can affect the issues," Ryan said.
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