House candidates fear super PACs

Long Island district draws hedge fund money

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A new super PAC, backed by a $500,000 contribution from a wealthy hedge fund manager, is aiming to knock off a Long Island congressman who doesn’t share the big donor’s views on reform of the finance industry.

Conservative super PAC Prosperity First is bankrolled by wealthy hedge fund CEO Robert Mercer, whose firm has lobbied against the Dodd-Frank financial reform law passed in the wake of the 2008 collapse of the banking and real estate industries.

Super PACs — which were made possible by the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision — have played pivotal roles in high-profile national and statewide races, but have the potential to make a far greater impact on House contests.

“Outside spending can certainly have more impact in House races than in Senate or presidential contests,” said Viveca Novak, communications director of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. “It takes less money to make an impression.”

Congressional districts are smaller, and candidates don’t collect anywhere near the amounts seen in statewide and nationwide elections, she added.

Prosperity First wants to oust Democratic Rep. Tim Bishop, whose 1st Congressional District is located in eastern Long Island. According to Federal Election Commission records, in less than a week, the super PAC has spent more than $294,000 on ads supporting wealthy Republican businessman Randy Altschuler and opposing Bishop.

Super donor Mercer, co-CEO of hedge fund giant Renaissance Technologies, gave Prosperity First $500,000 in April, accounting for nearly 80 percent of the $635,500 raised through June, according to the group's most recent filing. Mercer made the contribution three days after Prosperity First was founded.

Mercer has also given $5,000 to Altschuler’s 2012 campaign, as well as $1 million to the New York Conservative Party to oppose the construction of an Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero in lower Manhattan.

Mercer, through a spokesman, decline to comment.

Altschuler’s position on Wall Street reform aligns with that of Mercer and Renaissance. The hedge fund lobbied against the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, which tightens regulations on hedge funds, among other things.

Altschuler opposes the law, which he has described as “flawed" and a “job killer for New York,” local news site Smithtown Matters reported in 2010, while Bishop voted in favor of the legislation.

Renaissance spent $740,000 on lobbying in 2011 and $310,000 during the first six months of 2012. Another of its targets is a bill that would tax investment interest paid to hedge fund managers as ordinary income, which is subjected to a much higher rate.

Altschuler, like GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, has pledged to maintain the current capital gains tax rates.

Altschuler and Bishop is a rematch from 2010, which was a nail biter. Both campaigns challenged the results, and three weeks after the election, just 16 votes separated the candidates, The Hill reported. Eventually, Altschuler, who primarily funded his own campaign, conceded. The final tally gave Bishop a margin of victory of less than 600 votes in a race where about 200,000 votes were cast.

The 1st District has seen $296,000 in reported outside spending this election, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, with an undetermined amount spent on unreported “issue ads.” Prosperity First is responsible for 99 percent of the reported spending.

Crossroads GPS and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have also aired issue ads designed to help Altschuler’s campaign, according to Robert Pierce, Bishop’s communications director.

Prosperity First’s television spot encourages people to vote for Altschuler and attacks Bishop as a “pawn” of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

“Pelosi has one chess piece to always count on: Her bishop, Tim Bishop,” the ad states. The spot claims Bishop voted with Pelosi 97 percent of the time — a statistic backed up by the Washington Post, which calculated that Bishop voted 97 percent of the time with the Democratic Party while Pelosi was House Speaker during the 111th Congress.

Meanwhile the candidates themselves have been trading attack ads.

Bishop’s campaign has gone after Altschuler’s firm OfficeTiger, which outsources clerical business services to India. Altschuler sold it in 2006 to RR Donnelly for $250 million. Altschuler insists OfficeTiger’s outsourcing did not cost American jobs.

Altschuler has accused Bishop of misbehavior when he allegedly helped a constituent obtain fireworks permits for his son’s bar mitzvah in return for a campaign contribution, according to Long Island’s Newsday.

Bishop’s campaign says it did not solicit contributions in exchange for official action — it was merely following up on the constituent’s expressed interest to donate.

Prosperity First did not respond to a request for comment. Altschuler’s campaign manager Diane Weir said she was not aware of the ads beforehand, but she welcomed the support.

“It’s encouraging to know people support our agenda,” said Weir. “It’s an option people have … and I think that’s appropriate.”

Federal law prohibits a candidate from coordinating advertising activities with an outside spending group.

As in 2010, New York’s 1st District is considered a tossup this year, but Bishop may receive a bump from increased Democratic turnout for the presidential election.

While Bishop had a slight edge in the money race at the end of the second quarter — raising $1.85 million compared to Altschuler's $1.4 million — his campaign doubts the advantage will hold.

“No one in this campaign is under the impression that we won’t be outspent,” said Pierce of Bishop’s campaign. “Randy Altschuler made a career out of outsourcing American jobs to countries such as India, and now his fellow outsourcing pioneers are opening up their wallets for him.”

Sumir Chadha, another top donor to Prosperity First at $50,000, served on the board of directors of GlobalLogic with Altschuler, to whom he has given the legal maximum of $5,000 this election cycle.

GlobalLogic specializes in offshore software research and development.

For up-to-date news on outside money in the election, follow our Source2012 Tumblr and the hashtag #Source2012 on Twitter.