Democratic Groups Could Play Crucial TV Role in ’04 Races

Posted January 30, 2004 at 3:03pm

It’s increasingly clear that the campaign finance system is both messy and confusing. And I’m willing to bet it’s even worse than you thought.

As almost everyone knows, barring aggressive action by the Federal Election Commission, political groups operating under section 527 of the tax code are able to raise unlimited soft-dollar funds that can and will go to early television ads and extensive voter-mobilization efforts. [IMGCAP(1)]

In addition, in spite of the new restrictions of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, the FEC has ruled that American Indian tribes are allowed to use their treasuries to finance TV ads within the 60-day window before the general election in which soft dollars cannot be used to pay for ads.

Maybe most importantly, 501(c)(4) and 527 groups associated with three major nonpartisan but Democratic-leaning groups — the League of Conservation Voters, Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America — are allowed to run TV ads financed with soft dollars in the weeks before the 2004 elections, even though virtually all other comparable organizations are prohibited from doing the same.

The three groups are planning to take advantage of an exemption accorded to them in 1986 by the Supreme Court in Federal Election Commission v. Massachusetts Citizens for Life.

In that case, the court held that nonprofit ideological corporations that don’t accept funds from labor unions or corporations, don’t have shareholders and that were established to promote political ideas can run political TV spots funded with soft money.

That decision became more important this year because the groups, which enjoy what is called MCFL filing status, are exempt from a BCRA provision that prohibits soft dollars from being spent on TV ads within 60 days of a general election.

None of the groups is being particularly vocal about its plans for 2004, possibly because they don’t want to encourage the establishment of comparable GOP groups or goad the FEC into taking steps that might hamper the groups’ activities. But only the most naive among us would expect that the groups won’t take advantage of their particular status.

Indeed, back in May 2003, this newspaper published a letter from a senior official of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund noting that the group has “from its inception” had “MCFL filing status,” and that the fund, along with its affiliated groups, had spent “over $9 million during the 2000 elections.”

“And you can expect more of the same,” wrote Susanne Martinez, vice president of public policy for the group.

LCV, Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America are politically sophisticated organizations that have the political savvy and financial muscle to be significant players later this year when other groups are limited to spending only hard dollars in the crucial 60-day window prior to the Nov. 2 general elections.

“We can be a very powerful voice right up to Election Day, with a message that we know turns out core Democrats and appeals to swing voters,” NARAL Pro-Choice America Communications Director David Seldin told me recently.

Four years ago, during the last presidential race, NARAL’s PAC spent $1.6 million in hard dollars, while its 501(c)(4) spent more than five times that on direct advocacy with soft money.

Senior officials of the three groups and their consultants aren’t eager to detail their plans for 2004. But I have little doubt that they will spend money strategically later this year, and that means that they will run ads in September and October, when the spots are likely to have their greatest impact and when other groups are prohibited from using soft dollars to run ads. (Any organization can spend hard dollars during the 60-day window when soft-dollar TV expenditures are prohibited.)

Most GOP operatives say they are unaware of the existence of “MCFL status,” and those who are seem more concerned with the Democrats’ 527s, which are planning to raise huge amounts of cash to fund ads during the summer or to mobilize Democratic voters.

The Republicans are trying to create their own 527 groups, but they are finding the going rather slow, in part because potential contributors are confused about what is legal and which groups are doing what.

The Business Industry Political Action Committee has urged its members not to write checks to 527s that intend to become involved in federal contests. BIPAC President and CEO Greg Casey argues that the FEC is under considerable pressure to regulate the 527s, and potential contributors should wait until the situation becomes clearer and new mechanisms are established for delivering pro-business dollars into the political process.

The new campaign finance system may well have severed the link between the parties and fat-cat dollars, but it has produced a confusing proliferation of new groups that operate in ways not yet fully appreciated or fully regulated.

The only thing that I’m sure of is that if three politically astute Democratic-leaning groups are able to advertise, using soft dollars, inside the new 60-day hard-dollar window, the Republicans are going to scream bloody murder.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.