NEW YORK — A 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 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 mailings.
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 drive 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. ‘‘Postelection 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 reelection 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.
Another major Republican donor, Foster Friess, said in an interview that he had developed his own skepticism over ‘‘the whole idea of these multimedia ads from 45,000 feet.’’ After last year’s losses, he said, he was devoting most of his resources to an effort he called Left-Right, Left-Right, Forward March, which finds projects liberals and conservatives can support together, such as water purification in developing countries.
Still, he said, ‘‘no one in this effort is going to give up the values that they think are important.’’ For him, that extends to Hagel, whose ‘‘past statements about Israel should be really taken into consideration,’’ Friess said, adding, ‘‘and I would hope they could find a better person to serve in that position.’’
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 US ambassador to the United Nations, had no comparable outside media blitz. Continued...