WASHINGTON -- Following a report it was considering involvement in the Georgia Senate campaign of Democratic candidate Michelle Nunn, the head of Organizing for Action on Wednesday reiterated that the organization won't put resources into political campaigns.
Jon Carson, OFA executive director, said in a phone interview that the group -– an offshoot of President Barack Obama's reelection campaign apparatus –- was focused on policy advocacy. "OFA is not going into electoral politics," Carson told The Huffington Post definitively.
What that means in practical terms, Carson said, is that OFA will not donate money or endorse candidates. Nor will it appeal to members to volunteer on a candidate's behalf or to conduct voter registration drives.
"We won't be sending emails supporting campaigns and we won't be organizing our volunteers around electoral campaigns," said Carson.
Politico reported Tuesday that OFA was exploring ways to help Nunn take over the Senate seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.). The story noted that OFA Chairman Jim Messina was having discussions with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee about helping Democrats win in targeted, Republican-held districts. The story quoted former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes (D) as saying he would welcome help with voter registration.
In his interview, Carson said voter registration was not happening. He said OFA, which operates as a 501c4 social welfare organization, will support elected officials and candidates, but not through an electoral prism.
Rather, Carson said, the group would promote specific policy issues and highlight and support lawmakers who back the issues. So while Nunn may indeed benefit from OFA, the group's backing won't be in the form of a check or a registration drive. Rather, it will be in issue ads that mention specific policy positions. Carson highlighted some recent examples.
"When John McCain (R-Ariz.) supported background checks, we did a thank-you event outside his office," Carson said. "When [Rep.] Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) made steps in a big way towards comprehensive immigration reform, we had volunteers tweeting their thanks at him."
With an email list of supporters that some estimates say includes multiple millions, OFA does have the potential to tip the political scales. And a large bulk of its work will undoubtedly benefit Democratic causes, with its mission to promote Obama's agenda. But as Carson sees it, candidates would benefit from OFA's work, rather than OFA's work being done to benefit candidates.
"That type of residual effect of people getting involved could be to the benefit of all types of organizations ... not just politicians," Carson said.
OFA has come under suspicion and criticism from conservatives and good government groups since its formation after the 2012 election. Critics have noted that it has the same basic organizational structure as the conservative groups that Obama maligned during the campaign. But OFA has declined to take corporate donations and has instituted a policy of publicly disclosing the names of donors who give more than $250. It has pledged not to lobby the government.
Under tax law, 501c4 organizations can engage in political activity provided the work doesn't constitute the majority of its functions. The vagueness of the campaign finance legal system has allowed some groups to push and promote specific candidates under the guise of issue advocacy. The IRS, charged with ensuring that the line isn't crossed, has been embroiled in controversy over providing extra scrutiny to tea party groups requesting tax-exempt status in 2010 and 2011.
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