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In Some States, Political Ads Take Aim at Defense Secretary Nominee Chuck Hagel

January 29, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Political ads both on TV and in newspapers have been launched against Chuck Hagel, nominee for Secretary of Defense. Judy Woodruff talks with New York Times reporter Jim Rutenberg about who may be behind the campaigns and what affect they may have.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Hagel told Pentagon officials last week that he would divest himself of investments in defense-related stocks and resign from corporate boards to avoid any conflict of interest.

Meanwhile, his nomination has sparked a political-style campaign of television and newspaper ads for him and against him.

For that part of the story, we go to Jim Rutenberg, national political reporter at the New York Times.

Jim Rutenberg, welcome.

First of all, how big a campaign are we talking about? And how unusual is it for this to take place?

JIM RUTENBERG, The New York Times: Well, in terms of — compared to the presidential campaign, this is not like hundreds of millions of dollars. This at the most will be single-digit millions, at most.

But these are television ads in five or six states, newspaper ads, Web ads, phone calls, mailers. And there are about — at least six groups on the conservative side and then two kind of loosely formed supporting groups of Republicans and Democrats on the other side.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what is — on the against side, what is motivating them?

JIM RUTENBERG: Well, the motivation is, as I’m sure guys have — I know you guys have covered exhaustively — is former Senator Hagel’s views on Israel, some of his comments about the so-called Jewish lobby, and one group raises some of his comments about gays and some of his positions on gay rights.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And how much money? You said six groups. Who is funding these different groups?

JIM RUTENBERG: Well — well, there’s the rub. And that’s what makes this so unusual.

This — we don’t see these kind of anonymously funded groups, which is what these are, involved in Cabinet fights, but we have a lot of — we don’t even — I can’t say a lot. We have anonymous donors funneling money to some sort of pop-up groups and some of the more traditional groups. And we will never know who some of them are if they don’t reveal themselves.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you — I saw in what you have been writing that some of them are the same folks who were giving to Republicans, conservatives in the campaign in last year’s election, but there are also different groups involved.

JIM RUTENBERG: Yes.

I mean, well, we have, for instance, Sheldon Adelson, who is the casino executive out of Las Vegas, who is — we think we can say this confidently — the biggest individual donor in the history of American politics. He’s making phone calls to the Hill. We don’t know what kind of money he has into this fight. He’s making phone calls.

When you know the money he spent, that has great influence. There’s other donors who we don’t — again, we don’t know exactly who they are, but it seems to be that there are some of these new groups that are out of left field.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Jim, what about on the pro-Hagel side? Who are they? What groups are there and how much are they spending?

JIM RUTENBERG: They are spending, as has been the case in the last couple of cycles, far less.

I think we’re looking — and this is a really ballpark estimate — but maybe $100,000 or maybe a little bit more on some newspaper ads by a group of former national security officials of both parties, kind of the foreign policy realists of the Reagan, Bush and Clinton campaigns who liked Hagel, a Republican himself, and they have done a couple newspaper ads and some Web activity.

But it’s been — kind of pales next to the conservative onslaught.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And they are able to get away with not revealing who they are, why?

JIM RUTENBERG: Well, Citizens United, the Supreme Court case of a couple years ago, gave donors confidence that they could get involved in these groups, and there was going to be no legal trouble.

Now, these groups could have existed, but it gave confidence. So it started a growing trend of anonymously funded groups coming along for whatever the battle of the day is. So, Citizens United is in the mix. We also at the same time have these operatives who run these groups, have become very good at setting them up with nothing to do this year. So it’s kind of a perfect storm.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You also talked to them, Jim — I saw in your reporting. For all the money that was spent against President Obama last year, that was a campaign that wasn’t successful. You talked to them about that and about why they think it’s worth their money this time.

JIM RUTENBERG: Well, first of all, in the case of Sheldon Adelson, he told The Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago, easy come, easy go, basically. I’m in the gambling business, and you lose, but there’s always a new hand.

Now, for Sheldon Adelson, this is chump change. I mean, he probably didn’t even notice the $100 million or so that he reportedly spent out of his bank account. But others, like a Foster Friess, who is a big investor out of the West, he wants to keep spending. He believes what he believes.

Now, they do know that they lost and didn’t get what they wanted for their money, so they’re going to think about tactics going forward when we get into the real campaign seasons. Does it make sense to spend on television ads? Is there better uses for their money? But they are going to spend their money.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jim, finally, you have been looking at this nomination fight. What do the prospects look like? And does it look like this ad campaign is having an effect?

JIM RUTENBERG: Well, frankly, right now, it doesn’t look like it’s having an effect.

And his prospects seem good. Now, I have sat in similar seats before and said so-and-so is going to sail through, and they don’t. We have to go through a hearing. We really don’t know what is going to happen. But right now, the oddsmakers in Washington, whose track is spotty, let’s face it, but, seriously, they believe that he will go right through, in which case this money would seem wasted.

The groups will tell you they’re making an important point about policy. They are putting Hagel on notice that they expect him to kind of be at least somewhere in the range of their issues, and that that’s all they need for their money, and they’re going to get that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we are going to be watching those hearings once they get under way.

Jim Rutenberg of The New York Times, thank you.

JIM RUTENBERG: Thanks for having me.