HUFFINGTON POST

Thomas B. Edsall, Ethan Hova: Romney Buys Conservatives

Even with the rise of the internet, podcasts and YouTube debates, there are some things in politics that never change.

One of the most controversial, but now forgotten, practices of political machines and big city bosses was the payment of "walk-around money" to local clubs and organizations. The money would go to pay precinct workers whose job it was to get their voters to the polls, armed with a printed sample ballot showing them how to vote.

Democrats cherished walk around money, and suburban Republicans hated it. "This is money we give back to the people that you keep for yourselves," Maryland Democratic House Speaker Thomas Hunter Lowe (1969-1973) once told Republican reformers trying to prohibit such payments.

Now, early in the 2008 campaign, a new variety of walk-around money has emerged according to Federal Election Commission reports investigated by the Huffington Post's OffTheBus project.

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is distributing numerous payments, primarily to religious and social conservatives, most of them in Iowa, for what he calls "GOTV Consulting." "GOTV" is political shorthand for get-out-the-vote - just what walk-around payments financed.

"We pay the consultants to help organize and grow our volunteer base," Romney political director Carl Forti told the Huffington Post.

The payments start at $500 a month, the base rate for student leaders, many of whom are chairs in the "Iowa Students for Romney" campaign organization. At a higher level, Joe Earle, former director of the Iowa Christian Alliance (the successor to the Iowa Christian Coalition) gets $4,000 a month, and Gary Marx, a top-level member on the Romney for President National Faith And Values Steering Committee, gets $8,000 a month.

Marx said in an interview Thursday that in addition to the Romney campaign, he has a number of other corporate and interest group clients. "I'm point person, liaison with economic and social conservative organizations." He said he "regularly meets with leaders of those organizations at the state and national levels" on behalf of the Romney campaign.

The votes of Christian conservatives, especially those in Iowa, are crucial to Romney, whose campaign is premised both on winning Iowa and on winning the backing of the social right.

One of the major hurdles facing Romney is the exceptionally high level of suspicion of Romney's Mormon faith among fundamentalist and evangelical Protestant voters. Most of his GOTV consulting payments appear to be directed at building support precisely among these voters.

In just three months -- April, May and June -- the Romney campaign paid a total of $208,874.19 to 68 individuals for GOTV consulting.

Forti said the campaign was following a precedent set by President Bush in the 2004 general election. Bush campaign finance reports from that period show 55 individuals receiving "political consulting" fees, generally of $1,000 or less, for a total of $113,309, but the Romney campaign could not confirm that these were the payments Forti referred to.

Some of the GOTV payments are for services only indirectly related to getting out the vote.

Take the case of Matt Rees. On December 1, 2006, Rees published a Romney profile titled "Mister PowerPoint Goes To Washington," in the American Enterprise Institute's magazine The American. Rees wrote:

"In a quest for the Republican nomination there's no question that Romney will be well organized and well prepared." Rees then quoted Staples Founder Tom Stemberg: "I have never met a better venture capitalist or corporate director than Mitt Romney. I suspect he will be an equally good president." The Romney campaign posted the Rees article on the campaign website.

Rees received two GOTV consulting fees of $7,500 each, the first on March 12, the second on May 1.

Rees said in an interview that the article was published before he became a consultant to and speechwriter for the Romney campaign. More recently, Rees has gone to work for the White House Writers Group - "No one can match our experience in shaping corporate strategies and crafting complex messages so that they are readily understood and accepted by the public" - which has received $22,500 from Romney for communications consulting.

The recipient of one of the smallest GOTV payments ($500), Michael Bahr, a student at Ellsworth Community College in Iowa Falls, said his involvement began with an e-mail to the Romney campaign asking the governor to come speak at his school. He then got a call asking if he'd like to help out, and was asked to set up student organizations at his school and to run and participate in phone banks. "I wait for them to call," he said. "I'm constantly talking to people, but I don't do anything until I'm instructed."

One of Romney's top-dollar GOTV consultants is Drew McKissick in Columbia, South Carolina , another crucial early primary state. McKissick, who has received $20,000, describes himself as an active social conservative, and says he is "plugging them (the Romney campaign) in with the pro-family community. I've got a network of people, I've been involved in the conservative movement and the Republican Party for over 20 years."

McKissick said Romney's Mormon faith becomes "less of a problem once you begin talking issues with people."

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Research for this report assisted by Jack Muse.

"Romney Buys Conservatives" was produced as part of the Eyes on the Money project by OffTheBus