Run-Offs, Special Elections Test Finance Laws

Federal campaign finance laws that went into effect Nov. 6 may soon be tested in Hawaii, where special circumstances have the new regulations on a collision course with at least one group threatening legal action.

The special circumstance was created by the death and posthumous re-election of Rep. Patsy Mink, which in turn triggered two special elections: one on Nov. 30 to determine her temporary replacement and another on Jan. 4 to elect a new representative for a full two-year term.

According to finance law experts, both those races would be subject to the McCain-Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA), which bans all unregulated soft money and prohibits parties and special interest groups from running ads advocating candidates 60 days before the general election and 30 days before the primary.

But a pro-life group says its free speech is being violated by the new law.

The James Madison Center for Free Speech is planning to file a lawsuit for a temporary restraining order against the new law on behalf of Hawaii Right to Life, which under the new rules cannot run ads advocating pro-life candidates in the special election. Jim Bopp, general counsel for the James Madison Center, says the law violates his client's First Amendment rights.

"We believe that Hawaii Right to Life is the type of group that the First Amendment fully protects in their ability to discuss public affairs and the positions of candidates on issues," said Bopp.

Meanwhile, the new law may not apply in Louisiana, where Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, faces a run-off against Republican Suzanne Terrell. That's primarily because the new law allows parties and groups to spend soft money in a run-off that was raised prior to the Nov. 5 election.

Landrieu, a one-term freshman senator, won more votes in the Nov. 5 general election but failed to capture the 50 percent required under Louisiana law to take another term.

"Our guess is that there is going to be a lot of soft money spent here. Basically, they have all the soft money they have left over from the general election," noted Jeffrey Mazzella, vice president of the Center for Individual Freedom, which is also one of the plaintiffs in a federal suit against the law.

Landrieu co-sponsored and voted for the McCain-Feingold bill, so Mazzella’s group is urging her to give up the soft-money dollars for the run-off in the spirit of the new law.

"We believe she should stick with her principles and campaign without it," Mazzella said Friday. "We’re just pointing out the hypocrisy."

Landrieu’s office did not return phone calls on Friday.

Groups like Mazzella’s say that despite the soft-money ban for parties, the money will still be generated and spent instead by third party advocacy groups like unions, corporations, special interests and legal organizations. The only restriction will be that the money cannot be spent on ads 60 days before the general election, and 30 days before a primary.

"The greatest myth about McCain-Feingold is that it banned soft money," said Mazzella.

But groups like Common Cause, which has been a staunch proponent of McCain-Feingold, believe their side will prevail in court. In the meantime, they celebrate what they believe to be the beginning of a new era in "clean" politics.

"Last week saw the end of the soft money era in American politics," said Doug Simon, acting president of Common Cause, in a statement following the election. "He said his group and supporters "should be justifiably proud of the central role we played in bringing to a close two decades of growing corruption in the American political process."