WASHINGTON — The National Association of Realtors is looking to make the most of a recent Supreme Court decision that

WASHINGTON — The National Association of Realtors is looking to make the most of a recent Supreme Court decision that  allows corporations and nonprofits to play a greater role in political campaigns by making independent expenditures for or against issues and candidates running for federal office.

NAR President Vicki Cox Golder has created an advisory group, which is seeking guidance from Realtor associations around the country, to study the impact of the decision, said Cathy Whatley, the group’s chairwoman.

"This is not a uniform issue for one constituency," Whatley told NAR government affairs directors attending the group’s Midyear Conference & Trade Expo Friday. "This is an opportunity to up our game."

The ruling means that NAR can use money from its own treasury — including dues dollars — to pay for ads that support or oppose candidates and issues the group has a stake in.

Before the controversial Jan. 21 decision in Citizens United v. FEC — which opens the door to unlimited independent expenditures to support or oppose issues and candidates in federal elections — there were strict rules on how businesses could spend "soft dollars" from their corporate coffers to influence federal election campaigns.

If corporations, labor unions and other interest groups including NAR wanted to support candidates directly, they were required to form political action committees (PACs), which can be funded only by contributions from individuals, and whose activities are regulated.

PACs can contribute "hard dollars" raised from individuals directly to political campaigns, but no more than $5,000 to any single candidate in an election cycle. PACs can also make unlimited independent expenditures on ad campaigns for or against candidates, but can’t coordinate those campaigns with the candidate they are intended to support.

According to a database maintained by the Center for Responsive Politics at OpenSecrets.org, NAR’s PAC spent $11.9 million in the 2008 election cycle, including $6.7 million in independent expenditures.

That’s nearly three times the $4 million spent by the Realtors PAC in the 2000 election, of which $3.4 million went directly to candidates. Also according to OpenSecrets.org, NAR also spent $19.4 million lobbying lawmakers in 2009.

From 1976 to 2002, corporations and interest groups were also allowed to use soft dollars to purchase so-called "issue ads" that did not expressly advocate a vote for or against any candidate.

Issue ads funded by soft money from corporations, labor unions and other interest groups played a prominent role in many campaigns before Congress passed the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, which brought an end to the practice.

As a result of the change, independent expenditures by PACs shot up from $21.5 million in 2002 to $318.7 million in 2004 and $449.6 million in 2008, according to OpenSecrets.org.

The Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. FEC — that corporations have a First Amendment right to make independent expenditures of any amount from their own funds in support of or in opposition to issues and candidates — means those expenditures are likely to rise.

For companies and interest groups with PACs, the ability to spend "soft money" directly from their corporate coffers also complicates the process of deciding how to distribute "hard money" that individuals contribute to PACs.

The presidential advisory group chaired by Whatley has been asked to make recommendations that will help NAR get the most out of the hard dollars it raises, and hard- and soft-dollar fundraising strategies.

Walt Witek, NAR senior vice president for community and political affairs, said the advisory group wants to know if state and local Realtor associations currently have special dues in place for issue or candidacy advocacy.

"We’re going to use (that information) in the PAG to evaluate how you are positioned to reach out to voters to affect races and issues," Witek said.

If NAR wants to contribute directly to a federal candidate’s campaign fund, it will still have to do so through its PAC.

The advisory group wants feedback on what NAR’s role should be in making independent expenditures on behalf of federal candidates and issues.

At the state and local association level, about half of states had laws restricting the use of soft money in political campaigns that will no longer apply because of the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC, Whatley said.

So what candidates and issues will NAR support if it chooses to spend "soft money" on campaigns?

In the 2008 election, 58 percent of the NAR PAC’s contributions to candidates went to Democrats, and 42 percent to Republicans. But according to OpenSecrets.org, independent expenditures were split almost evenly between Democrats and Republicans, with $3.3 million going to candidates in each party.

NAR’s deputy chief lobbyist, Jamie Gregory, said Friday that the 2010 election is shaping up to be "very volatile. We have friends, Democrats and Republicans, (who) are going to lose." NAR, he said, "will have to make a lot of new friends."

Citing poll numbers aggregated by the website Real Clear Politics, Gregory said the public’s discontent with Congress is high, and that 36 seats in the House of Representatives are toss-ups. All but one of those seats is currently held by a Democrat, but Republicans need at least 40 seats to "flip" the House, he said.

Rick Miller, NAR’s managing director of Realtor advocacy, said the trade group’s Realtors political coordinating committee has been tasked with developing a "Realtor Party" brand, to encourage participation and contributions to NAR’s PAC.

The Realtor Party, he said, will identify issues "that matter to us no matter whether Democrats, the GOP, or (whoever else) sits in the majority. We support those who stand behind our issues." 

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