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2012 redux: Democrats in vulnerable races want the IRS to target opponent groups

Internal Revenue Service Director of Exempt Organizations Lois Lerner listens to opening statements during a hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee before refusing to testify and being excused May 22, 2013 in Washington, DC. The co
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Senate Democrats who are facing tough reelection bids this fall are pushing the Internal Revenue Service to pay closer attention to political opposition groups that are expected to spend millions of dollars trying to get them defeated in November, The Hill reported Thursday.

The vulnerable Dems are making their demand despite the fact that the IRS is fresh off a targeting scandal, in which the nation’s tax agency faced charges from Republicans that it disproportionately scrutinized conservative groups that had filed for tax-exempt status prior to the 2012 elections.

While they have been careful to note that the IRS should look at both conservative and liberal groups, the message they are sending is clear: they fear a wave of effective attack ads by GOP-funded groups, and are looking for any advantage they can find to blunt them. Much of the funding for these groups is shielded from the public; money lawmakers collect must be reported.

One of the most well-funded and powerful groups, Americans for Prosperity, which is funded by billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch, has already spent upwards of $30 million in attack ads aimed at Democrats during the current election cycle.

“If they’re claiming the tax relief, the tax benefit to be a nonprofit for social relief or social justice, then that’s what they should be doing,” Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, who faces a competitive race there, told The Hill. “If it’s to give them cover so they can do political activity, that’s abusing the tax code. And either side.”

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., was adamant in her demand for increased IRS scrutiny. When she was asked if the tax agency should be more active in examining political action groups based on their claims of focusing more on social welfare, she said, “Absolutely.”

“Both on the left and right,” she told The Hill. “As taxpayers, we should not be providing a write-off to groups to do political activity, and that’s exactly what we’re doing.”

A recent speech by Sen. Charles Schumer, the Democrats’ primary political strategist in the Senate, also provided some context regarding pleas to the IRS by some of his colleagues.

In remarks to the liberal Center for American Progress Action Fund, Schumer also called on the IRS to scrutinize political groups – but he did so in reference to curbing the influence of the Koch Brothers.

“The Tea Party elites gained extraordinary influence by being able to funnel millions of dollars into campaigns with ads that distort the truth and attack government,” he said. “There are many things that can be done administratively by the IRS and other government agencies — we must redouble those efforts immediately.”

Translation: “Let's use the power of government to silence political opponents.”

Democrats have admitted they must tread lightly on the issue, given the tremendous controversy that was caused by IRS scrutiny of political opponents during the last election cycle. But the new call for more of the same indicates Senate Democrats, especially, are willing to double down if that’s what it takes to survive.

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