Soft Money Hardball

THE CAMPAIGN OF U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone is taking the gloves off in its fight with a Republican candidate who's as yet unnamed, but has already been getting hefty advertising help from the national GOP. Over the past few weeks, no one who listened to commercial radio or watched TV in Minnesota could escape the messages sponsored by the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC). They usually ran something like "Liberal Paul Wellstone has [perpetrated this or that indignity upon] working Minnesotans... Call liberal Paul Wellstone at 1-800-etc. and tell him that he's wrong."

The Wellstone campaign isn't responding in kind, presumably preferring to save its advertising dollars for later. But last week, the general managers at metro area TV stations got a peculiar piece of mail: On letterhead from Wellstone's law firm, Kaplan, Strangis and Kaplan, the missive all but threatened lawsuits over "false and distorting" ads paid for by people other than candidates. The last point is crucial, since by law, TV stations pretty much have to run ads by political campaigns; they are not obliged, however, to accept commercials by third parties such as the NRSC. "As you know," the letter subtly noted, "broadcast stations are liable for libelous attacks made by such organizations upon candidates in their political broadcasts." (General managers of the local network affiliates could not be reached by press time.) Wellstone campaign manager Jeff Blodgett says the campaign isn't planning to sue quite yet, but "the way these things are starting out, we anticipate they'll get worse and worse and worse, and we want to be prepared for what's down the line."

Libel aside, the ads are interesting as a new venture in campaign finance. Groups like NRSC have a built-in fundraising advantage over campaigns because under federal law they can accept unlimited "soft money" donations; the downside is that they may only spend a limited amount in individual campaigns, charged as they are with restricting themselves to general advocacy and "party-building." But while the anti-Wellstone commercials give every appearance of being campaign ads, the NRSC is not counting them against its campaign-spending limit. Instead, it says they are "issue advocacy," designed simply to inform Minnesotans on current affairs and remind them that they can call or write their senator. Thus the 800 number at the end.

The Wellstone campaign has filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission over this matter of classification, a trick he says Democrats would never stoop to. That last point, however, is far from a safe bet. According to the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics, national Democratic organizations raised a tidy $40 million in soft money just in 1995--less than the GOP's $50 million, but not bad. And, says Center researcher Sheila Krumholz, there's ample evidence that "soft money has been leaking into campaigns" from both sides of the aisle. "Short of having a signed confession that they intended to misuse the money, there's almost no way the FEC will intervene, Krumholz says."

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