Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Veterans Advocacy Groups Pump Millions into Election Campaigns

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Veterans Advocacy Groups Pump Millions into Election Campaigns

Article excerpt

WASHINGTON - Veterans organizations with overtly partisan messages and agendas have spent millions of dollars promoting candidates in tight Senate races this year, prompting criticism from veterans and established vet groups on both sides of the political divide.

Concerned Veterans for America, a conservative advocacy group with ties to the billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch, has spent more than $2 million blasting Democratic Senate candidates, Center for Responsive Politics data show, largely for failing to fix problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs. The veterans group has both stoked and capitalized on outrage over the VA scandal involving long waiting times for medical care and the agency's cover-up of those delays.

On the liberal side, VoteVets.org has set out to spend about $7 million to help Democrats in the midterm elections, according to its organizers. The VoteVets political action committee has delivered more than $1 million to candidates both in direct donations and in bundled contributions since its founding in 2006.

The explosion in veteran-focused campaign spending alarms some veterans and longtime veterans organizations. Membership-focused veterans associations, such as the American Legion, have long had special tax protections coupled with strict limits on their political activities. Some vets associated with the "old guard" worry that politics will swallow the best interests of veterans.

"Most mainstream veterans groups are required to be nonpartisan, and it concerns me that we do have groups on both extremes that are very partisan in their approach and very calculating in what they want to accomplish," said Joe Violante, national legislative director of Disabled American Veterans, established in 1920 and congressionally chartered in 1932.

Mr. Violante voiced particular concern over attacks by Concerned Veterans for America against the VA. The conservative group has challenged VA funding increases and supports partially privatizing health care for veterans. Such steps could make fewer veterans eligible for more limited services, Mr. Violante said.

Concerned Veterans of America is run by and champions veterans, said Dan Caldwell, the group's issues and campaign manager, a veteran himself. The group fills a void in the veterans' community, he said, by advocating VA changes, deficit reduction and national security. Mr. Caldwell acknowledged that the VA scandal "changed the whole dynamic of our organization," but denied that the group's big-money dollar attacks on such Democrats as North Carolina incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan and Rep. Bruce Braley of Iowa are political.

"These ads we consider issue advocacy," Mr. Caldwell said. "They are based out of our VA reform efforts. We are not just a fly-by- night 501(c)(4) trying to use the VA scandal as an election-year issue. …

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