Follow the soft money

A new ad featuring Hillary Rodham Clinton marks the beginning of what will likely be a long season of soft-money spending.

Published November 10, 1999 12:00PM (EST)

A new stealth campaign ad in New York boosting Hillary Rodham Clinton has created the first advertising controversy in the race for New York's open Senate seat.
Republicans have filed suit, and campaign-finance watchdogs say that the spot marks the latest example of "soft-money" abuse, and the emergence of soft money as a key component of the 2000 election battles.

The television advertisement in question is the product of a $100,000 Democratic media campaign, which was launched in response to New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani's first ads for his Senate campaign. (Though neither has formally declared candidacy, Giuliani and
Clinton are both expected to run for the Senate seat being vacated by Daniel Moynihan.)

The pro-Clinton ad is a classic soft-money spot, not paid for by Clinton's
personal campaign coffers and studiously not an explicit appeal for
votes. But it's hard to tell that from the ad itself, which features a
beaming Clinton and cheerful New Yorkers encouraging viewers to "Call Hillary." The number given on the screen is actually that of the New York Democratic Party.

Republicans have already sued, alleging that the ad represents an
illegal coordination between New York Democratic officials and Clinton's
campaign. While most political-law experts have tagged the suit as a
long shot, the ad marks the first noticeable infusion of soft money into
campaign 2000, and experts are warning voters to prepare for an unprecedented barrage of
political issue advertising over the next 12 months.

"This is the dream loophole of politics," said Larry Makinson, executive
director of the Center for Responsive Politics.

The loophole in question is the fruit of a 4-year-old federal court decision in Colorado. Reformers say that the decision undermines the 1976 Buckley decision (which Makinson calls "the Magna Carta of campaign finance law"), which upheld federal restrictions on certain kinds of campaign spending. The Colorado decision eased those restrictions, clearing the way for so-called issue ads, which don't explicitly promote a single candidate. The decision also made it much easier for political groups throughout the spectrum to raise and spend millions of unregulated campaign dollars.

Indeed, said Makison, the AFL-CIO alone spent $35 million on issue ads in
1996. "Then the Chamber of Commerce stepped in to counteract what labor
was doing," he said. "It was like exploding the first H-bomb, and 1996
was really the genesis of all of this."

Republican presidential candidate John McCain's campaign spokesman, Dan Schnur, blasted Democrats and Clinton for the ad, calling it a blatant fudging of campaign laws. He reiterated McCain's call for a ban on soft money. "Whenever a candidate tries to twist the rules to their own benefit, it makes the public all
the more cynical, and strengthens the call for campaign-finance reform," Schnur said.

Both McCain and Democrat Bill Bradley have taken pledges that they will instruct their respective parties not to raise or spend soft money on their behalf if they receive the nominations of their respective

By contrast, the two front-runners, Vice President Al Gore and Texas
Gov. George W. Bush, have embraced soft money. Candidates are still
limited by tough federal campaign laws, which restrict individual donors
to a maximum contribution of $1,000 during a political cycle. But there
are no restrictions on giving to political parties. Now, the state
organizations have become "clearinghouses for laundering soft
money," Makinson said.

"What the parties have done for years is encourage big donors to give at
the state level, where there are no regulations, and less media
scrutiny," he said. "They try to fly under the radar and shift millions
of dollars around during the election cycle. In '96, we found all sorts
of big-money transfers happening between state parties."

Gore and Bush are both tightening their grips on state party structures
around the country. In California, the nation's largest state and a gold
mine of big-shot political donors, state Democratic Party leaders have
long been in the Gore camp. As Bradley began to surge in polls earlier
this year, California Democratic Party chairman Art Torres pledged his loyalty to the vice president and blasted the former New Jersey senator.

"To have an elitist who doesn't connect with real people? Please,"
Torres scoffed to the San Francisco Chronicle in April. Torres
criticized Bradley as someone who "hasn't been out there in the real
world ... He hasn't walked the streets of Los Angeles, Oakland or San

With double-digit leads in most states, the Bush campaign team has also
begun thinking about next November, planting loyalists in key positions
within state Republican parties throughout the country. Bush has already
shattered fund-raising records for hard money. Now the campaign is
focusing on controlling the millions in soft money expected to pour in
to state party coffers in the coming months.

state Sen. Jim Brulte resigned his post as co-chairman of
Bush's California campaign to become finance director of the California
Republican Party. Brulte will oversee a new multimillion-dollar
spending plan, and have the power to direct resources where he sees fit.

In the last national election cycle, soft-money spending topped the $250 million mark, a figure that Makinson said could easily double this time around. "I wouldn't be surprised at all to see soft money spending to top $500 million," he said. "You can bet that all these people who have already maxed out with $1,000 donations to the Bush campaign are going
to find other ways to help their candidate out."

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

MORE FROM Anthony York

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Campaign Finance Democratic Party Hillary Rodham Clinton Rudy Giuliani