The Republican Party will file federal lawsuits Thursday seeking to overthrow the McCain-Feingold federal campaign finance regulations, Republican National Committee Chairman Robert M. “Mike” Duncan revealed Wednesday night at a private dinner with the nation’s Republican governors.
The move is considered a slap in the face of the Republican Party’s failed 2008 presidential candidate, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who was dramatically outspent by Democrat Barack Obama, and of President Bush, who signed McCain-Feingold into law in 2002.
“We will bring two federal suits tomorrow to strengthen the Republican Party,” Mr. Duncan told The Washington Times.
Mr. Duncan said one suit will be filed in the District of Columbia to strike down the soft-money ban that is the central tenet of the McCain-Feingold Act — formally known as the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002. “Soft money” is largely unrestricted contributions from wealthy individuals, corporations and labor unions.
The second suit will be in a Louisiana federal court to strike down the limits under the law Mr. McCain co-sponsored with Sen. Russ Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat, that control coordination between parties and their candidates.
“It prohibits us from spending over $84,000 in coordination with a candidate in a congressional race,” Mr. Duncan said. “That means we have to find some group to raise and spend money but without any coordination” with the candidate, his campaign or the RNC.
“That does not allow for a unified message,” he said. “We don’t think there is anything corrupting about coordinating with a candidate.”
McCain-Feingold helped Republicans in 2004, when Mr. Bush, under the increased hard-dollar contribution limits in the bill, set what was then a campaign fundraising record in his successful re-election bid. Hard-money contributions are lower-amount donations — $2,300 per election to individual candidates, with a higher limit for political parties — that can be spent on any election activity.
But the coordination limits hamstrung Republican efforts to aid their candidate this year. They were unable to make up for the financial difficulties of Mr. McCain, who lost the Nov. 4 election in part because the senator from Arizona chose to take taxpayer financing for his general election campaign, limiting himself to spending $84 million while his Democratic opponent was free to raise and spend as much as he wanted.
Mr. Obama raised upwards of $600 million in the primary and general election, at least half of which was available in his battle with Mr. McCain. Mr. Obama’s haul allowed the Democratic National Committee to use nearly all $221 it raised through Oct. 15 in races that helped increase the party’s control of Congress.
During the campaign, Mr. McCain had said he would try to strengthen the law and criticized Mr. Obama for undermining the system.
The Supreme Court in 2003 upheld the limits on coordination and the ban on soft money, rejecting a challenge brought by Sen. Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican. Soft-money donations are unlimited in amount, but McCain-Feingold bans their use for most party activities and limits their use by outside interest groups.
It was unclear Wednesday why Republicans thought their new challenge would be successful.
The McCain-Feingold restrictions led to the expansion of the use of independent expenditure groups such as “527s” — so named for the provision in federal tax laws — that have been used with devastating effect by such groups as the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which is credited with helping derail the presidential bid of Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, and MoveOn.org.
“We have had plenty of time to see how the law works and the court will conclude it is being administered in an unconstitutional manner,” Mr. Duncan said.
Mr. Duncan is in the middle of a fight to retain his RNC post, with several state party chairmen and national committeemen campaigning for support from the Republican governors assembled here for their annual meeting. Seventeen of the nation’s 21 Republican governors are here, and will be discussing the criteria for choosing the next chairman.
Mr. Duncan said the timing of the suits had nothing to do with his potential re-election bid at the RNC’s annual winter meeting in January.
He said James Bopp Jr., a constitutional lawyer and RNC member from Indiana, will be the attorney of record in the suits.
Mr. Duncan said the suits are being filed now because “we have more experience now in how the finance laws work; we will be working with governors races in Virginia and New Jersey next year; and we have redistricting in the states coming up.”
“If we can’t take non-federal [soft] money to help get these things done, we will be at a severe disadvantage,” he said.
Mr. Duncan said he has not had time to think about running for re-election amid a runoff election for a Senate seat in Georgia and a recount for a Senate seat from Minnesota. “I don’t feel any urgency to announce a run for re-election,” he said. “I have to do my job first.”
Mr. Duncan led the RNC in raising more than $315 million for this year’s campaigns, winning the admiration of Republican candidates and state Republican Party officials and outperforming Howard Dean’s DNC fundraising performance. About $53 million was used to bolster Mr. McCain’s bid.
So far, the RNC has spent more than $12 million in direct and coordinated funds for the National Republican Congressional Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, both of which lagged far behind their equivalent Democratic committees.
The RNC also spent hundreds of millions of dollars in a combination of direct, “hybrid,” independent expenditure and get-out-the-vote efforts for the McCain campaign.