- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 21, 2004

The national Republican Party has alienated its base and is using a “boneheaded strategy” in its attempt to stymie special interest groups that are raising money to influence this year’s presidential election, the Republican chairman of the Federal Election Commission said yesterday.

“[T]he [Republican National Committee] is out of sync with the rank-and-file Republicans in the U.S. … the base is alienated,” Commission Chairman Bradley Smith told The Washington Times.

Mr. Smith’s comments came two days after he scolded the Republican Party at a public meeting for its attempt to shut down specially created, tax-exempt groups, known as 527s, that are raising millions of dollars, primarily in unlimited “soft money” donations from corporations, labor unions and wealthy individuals, for get-out-the-vote efforts and issue ads.

The commissioner, one of three Republican appointees on the six-member panel, said yesterday that the effort to thwart the newly formed political groups was shortsighted.

“A year ago, the same brain trust at the RNC was saying that we have to get more money in the public financing system,” Mr. Smith said. “In 2008, Republicans will need this money, though. If Hillary [Clinton] runs, she will have all the money she needs and Republicans stepping in now will need help in a tough primary. So they are trying to regulate this for the short-term partisan gain.”

The commission in a 4-2 advisory vote Wednesday told Americans for a Better Country (ABC), a newly formed Republican group, that funds spent to influence federal elections cannot be 100 percent soft money. The commission said that federal campaign activities must be financed at least partly by “hard money,” which is raised in smaller, tightly regulated amounts.

Some say the ABC inquiry was a Trojan horse sent by the RNC, triggered by worries that liberal groups were circumventing the 2002 campaign finance reform law that bans political parties from collecting soft money but is less clear on its application to independent groups, such as ABC.

The FEC’s advisory ruling is viewed as an early indication of how it will write regulations later this spring to enforce the new campaign finance law.

Political partisans offered sharply different predictions on the impact of the opinion, which technically applies only to the group that sought the ruling.

Democratic groups such as America Coming Together are continuing to raise soft money, while some Republicans are interpreting the FEC decision as halting the soft-money influx to such entities.

The RNC has heralded the FEC decision as “the end of these 527 groups.”

Mr. Smith’s controversial appointment in 2000 was backed by Republican Sens. Trent Lott of Mississippi and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who supported the appointee’s stance at the time that contribution limits needed to be repealed. Senate Republicans even delayed an ambassador’s appointment in order to force President Clinton to nominate Mr. Smith.

This week’s comments against his party prompted kind words from Mr. Smith’s previous detractors.

“Brad Smith has shown he is a man of principle,” said Celia Wexler, research director for Common Cause, a government watchdog group that in 2000 called Mr. Smith a “disastrous nominee.”

“It is pretty clear he took this issue to heart and the opinions he expressed were not partisan,” she said.

Prior to the vote, the RNC sent a letter to commissioners urging them to prohibit soft-money contributions to the 527s.

At the same time, a bevy of Democratic lawmakers and special interest groups, primarily those on the left, beseeched the commission to allow the groups to continue.

Republicans have shown an ability to outstrip Democrats using almost any fund-raising mechanism, said Larry Noble, executive director of the campaign-finance-reform advocacy group Center for Responsive Politics.

“Even in this election, the Republicans are in an interesting position,” Mr. Noble said. “They want to ban the 527s, but I suspect there are large Republican 527s as well.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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