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Freedom's Watch Makes a Move in Louisiana

Freedom's Watch, a conservative independent group aligned with several former Bush administration officials, has launched new ads in an attempt to sway voters in a special election for Louisiana's 6th Congressional District. The move seems to confirm speculation that the group would focus its financial firepower on House races in the 2008 election.

The commercial, which began running in the Baton Rouge media market today, attacks state Rep. Don Cazayoux (D) as a serial (and cereal) tax-raiser.

Cazayoux is widely seen as the frontrunner in the May 3 special election to replace Rep. Richard Baker (R). The Republican nominee -- former state Rep. Woody Jenkins -- is seen as a controversial conservative and is not expected to run a modern campaign.

Freedom's Watch joins the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee on the airwaves in Louisiana. The NRCC has spent $122,000 on television and polling in the district; the DCCC has dropped $151,000.

A 501(c)(4) organization, Freedom's Watch cannot directly advocate for or against the election or defeat of a candidate but rather can only talk issues. It can accept unlimited contributions and is not required to report its donors.

Asked about the decision to weigh in on such a high-profile House race, Freedom's Watch director of issue advocacy, Carl Forti, said that "tax policy is an enormously important issue nationally, and it is increasingly dominating the public policy debate." He added that "with the economic slowdown, it's important taxpayers know Don Cazayoux has a record of voting to raise taxes and fees on everything from groceries to hunting and fishing licenses."

The new effort by Freedom's Watch comes just days after a devastating piece ran in the New York Times that painted the group as adrift -- without a sense of purpose among either its staff or its donors.

There's little doubt that the group has labored through a series of starts and stops since its inception last fall.

Its initial foray into the political debate was a multi-million dollar campaign designed to convince wavering members of Congress about the rightness of President Bush's policy in Iraq.

That effort was followed by the ad in Ohio's 5th District special election that attacked the Democratic nominee as soft on illegal immigration and was
widely credited with saving the Republican nominee from the brink of disaster.

And then, nothing. As the Times' Michael Luo documents, Freedom's Watch struggled to define its vision and purpose both internally to the major donors backing it -- most notably casino executive Sheldon Adelson -- and to the public. After months of listlessness, Freedom's Watch President Brad Blakeman stepped aside and the group began working on re-making itself into an effective issue-based vehicle for the fall.

The hiring of Carl Forti coupled with the new Freedom's Watch ad in Louisiana seems to signal that those GOP strategists may well get their wish.

Forti, who ran the NRCC's independent expenditure operation for the last several cycles, would offer no comment about future plans for the group but it's hard not to see its decision to run ads in Louisiana (and take a pass on last week's hearings with Gen. David Petraeus) as a sign of its aims down the line.

With House Republicans lagging badly behind their Democratic counterparts, party strategists have made no secret of the fact that they would welcome a Freedom's Watch committed to running ads in House races. They may have gotten their wish.

By Chris Cillizza  |  April 15, 2008; 2:57 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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