Candidates to replace Nussle in a tussle over television ad

The Republican primary to replace Rep. Jim Nussle (R-Iowa) took a contentious turn last week when candidate Brian Kennedy filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) against restaurateur Mike Whalen.

Kennedy, the former chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa, Whalen and state Rep. Bill Dix are the top contenders for the GOP nomination in a district that Nussle has represented for eight terms.

In a letter to the FEC, Carol Earnhardt, Kennedy’s campaign manager, charged that Whalen accepted an illegal corporate contribution by coordinating his political campaign and a television ad aired by Machine Shed Restaurants Inc. and its parent company Heart of America Restaurants Inc. Whalen is president and CEO of both companies, according to the complaint.

Perhaps most troublesome for Whalen’s campaign, the corporate ad, which features Whalen prominently, was reported to have been produced by Whalen’s lead political consultant, Steve Grubbs, who works for Victory Enterprises. News of Grubbs’s role was reported after Whalen’s spokesman, Brian Dumas, told reporters the ad was not created by consultants to the campaign, according to a  section of Kennedy’s complaint titled “Factual Background.”

“Such activity is a calculated effort to evade the strict prohibition on corporate contributions to federal campaigns and has resulted in illegal corporate contributions and illegal coordinated communications,” wrote Earnhardt in the complaint, which she sent to Scott Thomas, the chairman of the FEC.

“We’ve checked with the Federal Election Commission, and we feel confident that we’re in compliance with the law,” said Dumas, who is also Whalen’s campaign manager. “It’s our understanding that a candidate’s company can continue to advertise in the same fashion it has historically done so.”    

Dumas also said that Kennedy is attacking Whalen to compensate for Whalen’s fundraising advantage.

Whalen has accelerated his fundraising in recent months. Reports show he raised $129,000 between the beginning of July and the end of September, giving him $131,000 in the bank. This puts him ahead of Kennedy, who has $51,000 in his campaign war chest. Dix has amassed more money than both his rivals, $184,000, according to his fundraising report.

Kennedy’s campaign has noted that the ad paid for by Heart of America Restaurants  echoes many of the themes of Whalen’s campaign. Whalen’s campaign website prominently features Whalen’s career in the food business, likening serving diners to serving congressional constituents. Kennedy also reported that an employee of a political consultant for Whalen for Congress and two Whalen campaign volunteers appear in the restaurant ad.

The winner of the GOP primary would face off against one of four Democrats battling in their own primary: Bruce Braley, who reported nearly $250,000 on hand at the end of September, Rick Dickinson, Bill Gluba and Dave Overby.