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527s Bedevil Hill Hopefuls

As the debate over the influence of third-party groups continues to dominate the presidential race, candidates in some of the nation’s highest-profile Senate races are also being forced to address an issue they would prefer to ignore.

“I’d rather they went away,” said Pete Coors, the Republican nominee in the open Colorado Senate race. “But we live in a country where we have free speech, and I think that is a good thing.”

Rep. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who is running for the seat being vacated by Sen. Fritz Hollings (D), said that outside advertising puts a candidate in a “tough spot.”

“I believe in free speech, but the way these [groups] are set up you don’t know who is funding them,” he added. “Usually people blame me for the negative ads that run against my opponent.”

In both Colorado and South Carolina, Americans for Jobs Security is up with ads attacking the records of the Democratic nominees. The group, which is registered as a 501(c)(6) organization, is not required to make public a list of its contributors. The group also has run ads in the Alaska and North Carolina Senate races.

Under the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, any ads paid for with corporate and labor dollars must come down by Sept. 2. Soft- money organizations fueled by individual contributions, however, will be able to remain on the air.

A fight over the truthfulness of recent third party ads hitting Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) on his military record has led Democrats to cry foul, calling on President Bush to condemn the commercials. Bush has decried all outside advertising in the contest.

No state is likely to see as much independent advertising aimed at Congressional races as South Dakota, where the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a conservative-aligned group known as You’re Fired are currently on television attacking Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D). The National Republican Senatorial Committee also is set to begin a $2 million independent expenditure campaign on Sept. 7 on behalf of former Rep. John Thune (R).

Dick Wadhams, campaign manager for Thune, said that in his Senate race two years ago, the former Congressman was “the first candidate to try and keep third party ads out of South Dakota. His reward for that was millions of dollars in negative ads spent by liberal extremist groups.”

In 2002, Thune and Sen. Tim Johnson (D) flirted with signing a pact that banned third party advertising but ultimately shied away, allowing millions of dollars to be spent on both sides. Johnson won that race by just 524 votes.

Daschle has unilaterally pledged to keep all third-party groups intending to work on his behalf out of the state, although Wadhams insisted that progressive groups like the League of Conservation Voters and NARAL Pro-Choice America will eventually advertise in the state whether Daschle wants them to or not.

For now, however, the Daschle campaign is using the independent advertising campaigns as a cudgel to bludgeon Thune.

“When John Thune decided to let these special interest groups like the Chamber come into South Dakota and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on his behalf, it raises the question in the minds of voters why these special interest groups want John Thune elected so bad,” said Daschle deputy campaign manager Dan Pfeiffer.

Daschle is up with ads decrying these groups and seeking to link them directly to Thune despite the fact that under the law the candidate can in no way, shape or form coordinate with an outside organization.

Pfeiffer said, however, that if Thune made a call to these groups, they would pull their ads down. “We believe that he is responsible for the presence of these ads beyond a shadow of a doubt,” he said.

“Just because you ask them to stay out doesn’t mean they will,” retorted Wadhams.

Rhetoric aside, DeMint said that in his race, outside interference makes the task of educating voters about his positions much more difficult.

“It’s a different election altogether,” said DeMint. “Neither the campaign nor the party has any control over the message.”

AJS has run a flight of ads attacking state Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum (D) on her record in that post.

The ads allege that while her office spent “millions” on travel, Tenenbaum called for a $2 billion tax increase.

Tenenbaum responded with an ad decrying the attack and emphasizing her credentials. Her campaign also demanded that DeMint call for the ads to be taken down.

“I have said I wish they would take them off,” said DeMint on Monday. “They have every right to run them, but I would hope these groups would talk more about what I have done and what I want to do.”

Coors echoed that sentiment even as AJS is up with ads hitting state Attorney General Ken Salazar (D) on his environmental record.

Following their respective Aug. 3 primary victories, Salazar called on Coors to agree to a ban on all third-party advertising during the general election. Coors, however, demurred even though he was the subject of a multimillion-dollar negative mail and television campaign by a 527 group led by former Sen. Bill Armstrong (R-Colo.) in the Republican primary.

On Monday, Coors said that Salazar complained directly to him about the ads. “I told him, ‘I don’t know who the guys are who did this. As far as I’m concerned this is an opportunity for you to speak about your environmental record,’” Coors said.

Salazar seems to have heeded that advice with an ad attempting to turn the AJS ads on their head.

“We were lucky,” said Salazar consultant Mike Stratton. “They hadn’t done good research and they thought we would be sleeping. In a backhand sort of way we did judo on this and turned it to our advantage.”