Political Speech and a Senator's Election Rights of Special-Interest Groups to Air Ads May Be One of the Thorniest Issues Facing Campaign-Finance Reform
Warren Richey, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
Last fall, Democratic incumbent Lynn Adelman was locked in a tight race for his Wisconsin State Senate seat when, suddenly, a week before the election, he faced a $100,000 television advertising blitz.
The media deluge was not funded by his Republican opponent. Instead, it was organized and financed entirely by the state's largest business group, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce. The group's TV campaign portrayed Mr. Adelman, a 20-year Senate veteran, as an antireform "liberal" who "put the rights of criminals ahead of the rights of victims."
Adelman's election eve nightmare was similar to that of hundreds of other candidates nationwide last year who found themselves running not only against their declared political opponents, but also against well-funded business, labor, or other special-interest groups. Armed with US Supreme Court decisions defending their free speech, such groups are increasingly placing expensive media advertisements during the critical last weeks of elections. Their coming of age illustrates one of the thorniest issues on Congress's agenda for campaign-finance reform. Unfair influence? Targeted politicians view it as an effort by unregulated special interests to influence the final outcome of elections. "It is just so blatant," Adelman says. "There is not a shade of subtlety or doubt about it." But the groups say they are merely exercising their First Amendment right to educate voters about important public issues. "We don't see this as a campaign issue. We see this as a free-speech issue," says Jim Pugh of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce. "We recognize that communication - particularly television - can have an impact on people's decisions when they go to vote, but that impact is irrelevant to our constitutional right to express our point of view." Proponents of campaign-finance reform say the proliferation of "issue advocacy" groups threatens to undermine the integrity of elections throughout the country at the federal, state, and local levels. If the trend continues, they warn, candidates will increasingly become merely bit players in their own election campaigns. "It is a very, very big problem," says Don Simon of Common Cause. "Unless corrected, it is likely to become even bigger in the next election." Mr. Simon says no one is sure how much issue advocacy groups spent in 1996, but the amount may have reached $100 million. The largest chunk - $25 million to $35 million - was doled out by the AFL-CIO in a well-publicized campaign to unseat congressional Republicans. The effort contributed to Republican defeats in Connecticut, California, North Carolina, Ohio, and Washington - but was not enough to prevent the Republicans from retaining control of both houses of Congress. Precise spending estimates are difficult because such groups are not required to report their expenditures or disclose their funding sources. By contrast, candidates and their parties must do so under federal and state election laws. …