Campaign finance backers brace for tough election night

Advocates for greater limits on campaign finance are bracing themselves for major losses on Tuesday.

The anticipated losses will cap a year in which the Supreme Court unraveled major portions of the last two decades of the advocates’ work.

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Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), who played a leading role in passing campaign finance reform legislation, is a clear underdog in his reelection race. A CNN/Time/Opinion Research Corporation poll released two weeks ago had the three-term incumbent trailing businessman Ron Johnson, 52 to 44 percent.

Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who strongly opposed that bill, has an outside chance to become majority leader. McConnell’s GOP conference is expected to grow by at least six seats.

Republicans generally oppose campaign-finance restrictions, and a GOP takeover of the House would serve as a roadblock to any effort to pass campaign finance measures.

And just as an election marked by hundreds of millions of dollars of undisclosed political spending comes to a close, the Supreme Court will decide as early as Monday whether to review another major challenge to campaign finance disclosure laws.

A suit filed by SpeechNow.org v. Federal Election Commission takes issue with rules forcing like-minded individuals to register with the federal government and form Political Action Committees (PACs) if they want to pool their funds and buy ads that support or oppose particular candidates.

In March, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled the government could not limit contributions to groups like SpeechNow.org, but upheld the requirement that the group become a PAC in order to spend money on political advertisements.

If the Citizens United ruling is any indication, the Supreme Court could view the PAC issue differently, and advocates for tougher campaign finance laws are urging the high court to uphold the D.C. Circuit appeals court ruling.

“The Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC was an endorsement by eight justices of the value of political transparency, and we hope that the Court maintains its strong support of campaign finance disclosure in the SpeechNow.org case,” said Tara Malloy of the Campaign Legal Center.

SpeechNow defends its challenge to PAC rules by arguing that laws requiring likeminded individuals to form the committees subject them to onerous rules and regulations and infringes on free speech.

“In a free country, citizens should not have to register with government bureaucrats and comply with onerous regulations just to speak,” said Bradley A. Smith, a former FEC chairman and chairman of the conservative Center for Competitive Politics. “Americans should not have to disclose broad, non-campaign activities to the government, and they should not have to get the government’s permission to disband.”

For instance, PACs must appoint treasurers who are legally responsible for complying with federal law; they may spend money only from designated bank accounts; and they must fill out disclosure forms and detailed schedules on a regular basis and disclose the money they raise or spend for any purpose.

SpeechNow’s executives also are taking aim at Feingold directly by running an ad blaming him for the deficit and taking him to task for being the father of campaign regulations, arguing that he “attacked our First Amendment right to free speech.” It also uses the theme music from Larry David’s hit series, “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” David is a big donor to the Democratic Party.

One of the SpeechNow’s major funders is Fred Young, the heir of the Young Radiator fortune in Racine, Wis. who sold the company for more than $70 million in 1998. Young donated more than $100,000 last month to SpeechNow.org for its ad campaign against Feingold.

SpeechNow is headed by David Keating, a longtime opponent of limits on campaign finance law who has filed numerous suits against the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act (BCRA), which Feingold authored along with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2002.

The D.C. circuit appeals court ruling lifted the prior $5,000 limit on the amount individuals could donate to a group’s electioneering efforts, and along with the Citizens’ United decision, paved the way for Young to give $100,000 to SpeechNow last month, and corporate-sponsored groups like the American Action Network, to spent an estimated $1 million in ads against Feingold this cycle.

Keating serves as executive director of the D.C.-based Club for Growth, where Pennsylvania GOP Senate candidate Pat Toomey previously served as president. The Club for Growth has spent $200,000 in the Wisconsin Senate race and millions more in races across the country.

At the time, passage of BCRA in 2002 signaled the end of a long and arduous two-decades long congressional debate on campaign finance reform. The sweeping measure aimed to curb the role of soft money in elections by prohibiting national political parties from raising or spending any funds not subject to federal limits.

It also prohibited corporations or unions from funding broadcast ads that name a candidate within 30 days of a primary or caucus or 60 days of a general election. The Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission early this year overturned those provisions and led to $300 million or more worth of political ads whose funders remained secret this cycle, according to estimates by watchdog organizations.

At the same time, many of the most vocal champions of tightening campaign finance laws have been muzzled, defeated, or have simply left Congress. Facing a tough primary himself this year, McCain shied away from supporting a measure that would require these corporations and unions to disclose the identity of the funders in the ads.

GOP Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, two longtime champions of overhauling the nation’s campaign finance rules, refused to support the disclosure bill under heavy pressure from their Republicans leaders during such a critical election year.

In the House, Tea Party-supported Christine O’Donnell upset Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.) in the Senate primary. Castle is a dedicated proponent of campaign-finance limits and the sole GOP co-sponsor of this year’s disclosure bill that passed the House but hit a brick wall in the Senate.

Castle’s departure follows that of Rep. Chris Shays (R-Conn.), who lost his re-election campaign in 2008 and Rep. Martin Meehan (D-Mass.) who retired in 2007. Shays and Meehan co-sponsored BCRA in the House and defended it in a series of court challenges.

Editors note: While Keating is involved with SpeechNow and the Club for Growth, the two groups are not affiliated with one another.

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