PACs Help Politicians E-Mail Lists to Grow

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Two Republican leaders have built large e-mail lists through the issue-advocacy efforts of their political action committees.


The e-mail list of Arizona Sen. John McCain's Straight Talk America PAC has topped 142,000 subscribers. Oklahoma Rep. J.C. Watts, chairman of the House Republican conference, operates a list with more than 60,000 subscribers through his American Renewal PAC.


"These are clearly two of the biggest political e-mail lists on the Internet," said Andy Hoefer, content manager at PoliticsOnline, Charleston, SC.


Members of the House and Senate are prohibited from conducting fundraising and lobbying activities through their publicly funded .gov Web sites. But these restrictions do not apply to their PAC sites.


McCain started his Straight Talk PAC site last summer in an effort to capitalize on the interest his presidential campaign generated in one chief issue: campaign finance reform.


Since the site's start, campaign finance reform -- specifically, McCain's effort to win passage of the McCain-Feingold legislation -- has been the centerpiece of Straight Talk's list-building and fundraising efforts.


Even after the campaign season, list-building efforts have been successful, according to Max Fose, a consultant to the Straight Talk site and a partner at Integrated Web Strategy LLC, Washington. In January, for example, Straight Talk added 1,000 subscribers to its e-mail list, Fose said.


In addition to soliciting new visitors with a pop-up window that urges them to join the reform effort, Straight Talk regularly contacts list subscribers with a viral pitch. List subscribers are e-mailed with "action items" about relevant legislative news and then are urged to forward the message to friends, Fose said.


Straight Talk also recently tested a new tactic: e-mailing a 30-second video message from McCain to the list, along with a link to the site's legislative action center. The video message appeal also included a link to a contribution form.


Fose declined to reveal the total amount the site has raised but said that even during the off-season, Web fundraising easily pays for the site's maintenance and consulting fees.


While McCain's list was largely compiled during his presidential campaign, Watts built the vast majority of his list in less than a week last December -- because of a single hot-button issue.


During the last week of the legal battle over Florida's electoral votes in the presidential race, Watts posted a message on his Web site urging Al Gore to concede the election. The petition, at www.jcwatts.com, also asked interested people to join the American Renewal PAC e-mail list.


Watts' list mushroomed from a couple of thousand subscribers to more than 60,000, said Jeff Mascott of Washington-based Mascott Communications, a consultant to the PAC. Mascott estimated that more than 85 percent of the people who signed the petition also joined the e-mail list. Of the high opt-in rate, Mascott said, "It's probably just a reflection of the fact that the people urging Al Gore to concede are the same type of people who are interested in J.C."


Jody Thomas, executive director at the Falls Church, VA-based PAC, said the success of the petition campaign demonstrated the Web's incredible potential as an "information dissemination and lobbying tool."


Thomas expects that the PAC will continue to use its Web site to capitalize on hot-button issues. (The PAC sent a second call-to-action to its list to rally support for Attorney General John Ashcroft during his confirmation hearings.)


Pam Fielding, president of e-advocates, Washington, an online political consultancy, believes the popularity of issue-based Internet advocacy campaigns has grown because "people have finally connected the dots." Politicians and political organizations, she said, now recognize that cyber-activism can be effective both during the campaign season and during legislative battles.


McCain and Watts are not the only elected officials to have PAC Web sites.


House Majority Leader Dick Armey's PAC, the Majority Leader's Fund, has a Web site, www.armey.org, that highlights his top issues and allows supporters to sign up for "action alerts." Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura has a politically active site, www.jesseventura.org, that solicits supporters for "The Jesse Net." Ventura's list has been tapped to lobby support for legislative initiatives in Minnesota.


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