Karl Rove's tax-exempt Crossroads GPS group just months ago said it was interested only in advancing issues, not engaging in electoral politics.
This week, it began running a minute-long ad telling viewers to vote for Republican Mitt Romney — and it doesn't mention at all those very issues it had been saying were central to its mission.
The ad, "Mitt and David," features the parents of a boy who died of cancer nearly 25 years ago. They recount how Romney ministered to him, helping him write a will and delivering his eulogy.
"To spend time with a 14-year-old boy, in his last days," says Pat Oparowski, David Oparowski's mother. "You cannot but help know that he's caring. He cares about people and about their needs. I think he's going to be able to get us back on track. I really do."
The ad closes with these words on the screen: "Please vote Mitt Romney for President."
Crossroads spokesman Jonathan Collegio told NPR in an email: "Nonprofit groups are allowed to undertake some political activity as part of their missions as long as it's not the central thing they do." He also said that environmental groups with nonprofit status are also running political ads against Republicans.
The ad so far is running in Wisconsin and Ohio in a $4.2 million ad buy, but that is to be expanded to other states in the coming days.
Crossroads GPS is a so-called social welfare group seeking IRS tax exempt status under section 501(c)(4), which would allow it to keep its donors' names secret. But that law also restricts the group's ability to engage in electoral politics. IRS rules do not specify exactly what percentage these groups can spend on politics. They require only that their primary goal must be "social welfare" and not politics.
The new ad is the latest shift for the group's advertising strategy. Crossroads GPS spent more than $50 million on ads attacking President Obama this spring and summer. But its officers do not believe those count as political activity because they did not tell viewers to vote against Obama. Instead, they urged viewers to "tell President Obama" to reduce the federal debt or repeal his health care law, or take some other action.
Then, starting last month, Crossroads GPS started running ads telling viewers to vote against Obama, but it did so in the context that he had failed to improve the economy or create enough jobs or cut enough spending.
The newest ad is the first purely positive ad it has run supporting Romney — and also the first ad that makes no mention of the debt, the Affordable Care Act or any of the other issues it earlier had cited as its reason for existence.
In its first 18 months, Crossroads GPS raised $67 million of its total $77 million from as few as 16 rich donors. What it has raised this year, and how much came in large donations, will not be disclosed to the IRS and the public until April 2013.
S.V. Dáte is congressional editor on NPR's Washington Desk.