Thursday, May 6, 2004

Both Democrats and Republicans are considering the deployment of a powerful but risky new weapon in the fall presidential-election campaign.

The plan would let each party’s national committee set up a separate campaign group for spending unlimited amounts of “hard dollar” contributions on advertising and other activities for its presidential candidate.

“The pressure to use this new weapon arises in part because of McCain-Feingold’s closing of the ‘soft-money’ loophole,” said Larry Noble, a former Federal Election Commission general counsel.

What worries party and campaign officials, several say, is that the law forbids such separate units to coordinate their work with the rest of the national committee or the candidate’s campaign creating both legal and political risks.

Under the campaign-finance law passed last year, for the first time in the history of American elections, illegal coordination carries criminal penalties, rather than the fine and slap on the wrist that used to apply.

“Nobody wants to be accused of coordinating and be the first person hauled before a court of justice on this,” said Evan Tracey, chief operating officer of TNSMI/Campaign Media Analysis Group, which monitors campaign-ad spending.

The Supreme Court in December left standing the McCain-Feingold ban on “soft money” federally unregulated contributions to parties that can be used for any purpose while tightening rules on coordination between a candidate’s campaign and his party’s “hard money” election efforts.

As a result, this is the first year that the national party can neither coordinate ads supporting its candidate nor use soft money to help foot the bill.

The resulting vacuum would be filled by a separate hard money campaign unit, which the Democratic National Committee says it is seriously considering. The Republican National Committee says it, too, has such a plan under review, but would deploy it only reluctantly.

“All of our options are on the table, and no final decisions have been made,” Josh Wachs, chief operating officer of the Democratic National Committee, told The Washington Times.

“We are keeping our options open and will continue to discuss the various factors ground game, turnout, 72-hour task force, party-building and advertising and marshal our resources accordingly,” Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie said.

Use of the new weapon is risky because it would force a campaign’s strategists to surrender control over the timing and content of some of their TV advertising message a potentially ruinous result in the closing days of the general election. Republicans are still apologizing for the 1988 “Willie Horton” TV ad against Michael Dukakis that a pro-GOP independent group ran, using soft money, when election law forbade coordination with such outside groups.

Fearing loss of message control, Republicans say they would employ the new weapon only to keep from being blown out of the water if the Democrats set up such a unit. But Democrats say they suspect the RNC and Bush campaign have intended to go with the new weapon ever since Mr. Bush last month declared an end to fund raising for his campaign’s coffers and began raising money for the RNC.

Outside critics see another problem.

“It means that the parties will spend unlimited amounts on their publicly funded candidates, where the whole idea of public funding was that if you accept public money, you agree to spending limits, including what each party can spend,” said Mr. Noble, the former FEC official who now heads the Center for Responsive Politics.

Under rules established by the 1974 public campaign-finance law, each side’s general-election arsenal for the 2000 presidential campaign totals $90 million $74 million in taxpayer funds and another $16 million in federally regulated hard money contributions made to each party’s national committee.

But federal election laws allow a national party committee to spend, without limit, additional hard dollars received from donors. The separate unit within each national committee can use the money to create its own direct mail, radio and TV ads for its candidate.

Staff in such a separate unit is barred from discussing the content or timing of a mailing or TV ad with the candidate’s campaign or anyone else in the national committee who is coordinating activities with the candidate’s campaign.

The Kerry and Bush campaigns say that means they would lose control over part of their message. That already has happened to Mr. Kerry’s camp. It has had only partial control of the message since he became the Democrats’ putative nominee in March.

With a far smaller hard-money kitty than Mr. Bush’s, the Kerry campaign has had to rely on outside 527 groups named for the IRS tax code they fall under that can legally accept large soft-dollar contributions from major donors. The pro-Kerry groups can do their thing without running afoul of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law restrictions because they do not coordinate their activities with the Kerry campaign or the DNC.

Recently, Mr. Kerry’s campaign has spent about $10 million in federally limited hard-dollar contributions from its own coffers the only kind of contributions permitted under the new McCain-Feingold law on ads it totally controls. At the same time, independent 527 groups such as and the Media Fund spent about three times that amount on uncoordinated pro-Kerry ads, financed by unlimited soft-money contributions, mostly from individuals like billionaire George Soros.

In the week ending April 27, for example, 97 percent of Bush ad dollars addressed one broad issue: Iraq and Mr. Kerry’s votes on the war and defense spending. During the same period, however, the Kerry campaign and the pro-Kerry 527s barred from coordinating with each other fielded a combined total of 11 individual commercials on several subjects: Iraq, the economy, job outsourcing, prescription-drug benefits, clean air, and Hispanic outreach, according to Mr. Tracey.

In one instance, a pro-Kerry 527 group ran a clean-air ad in West Virginia at the same time Mr. Kerry was cultivating votes of coal miners by visiting mines in the state, said Mr. Tracey.

The relative efficacy of pinpoint vs. scattershot advertising is not clear in this case. Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry remained statistically tied in the polls, despite the ads.

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