Federal Agencies to Consider Complaints Over GOP Ads

By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 14, 2008

Television stations in four states are asking the Federal Election Commission and the Federal Communications Commission for advice regarding allegations that Republicans in several Senate races are shortchanging viewers with the brevity of their stand-by-your-ad statements.

The argument is over a matter of seconds, but depending on how the complaints are evaluated, the decision could cost four Republican Senate candidates hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Those being challenged are Republican Sens. Norm Coleman (Minn.) and Gordon Smith (Ore.), Virginia challenger James S. Gilmore III, and Colorado candidate Bob Schaffer.

TV stations received letters from Democratic challengers arguing that the statements of approval at the end of campaign ads violate election laws. Attorneys for Al Franken, the challenger in Minnesota, said Coleman's image does not appear for four seconds at the end of his spot. Attorneys for Oregon challenger Jeff Merkley said Smith's ad shows a written statement but not his image. Similar allegations were brought against Gilmore and Schaffer.

As a result, the Republican candidates have "forfeited their entitlement" to discounted television advertising rates reserved for political office-seekers "for the duration of the campaign," wrote lawyer Marc Elias, who signed all four letters. That means, Elias contended, that the Republicans should have to pay the commercial rate, instead of the discounted rate.

Smith's spokeswoman, Lindsay Gilbride, called the complaints "frivolous," and Coleman spokesman Luke Friedrich called them desperate. "There's no question about who sponsored and approved this ad," he said.

Republican election lawyer Jan Baran said he cannot imagine the FCC requiring networks to impose the sanctions. "Neither the FEC nor the FCC have imposed such a draconian punishment on any campaign with so minor an infraction," he said.

The FEC deadlocked over a similar case brought by Elias against then-Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) in 2006.

Elias said enforcing the length of the statement is no technicality. "It's the law," he said. "And it was specifically added to the law to make candidates stand by their ads."

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