The Influence Industry

John McCain accused of violating McCain-Feingold campaign finance law

In one of the ads in question, GOP Sens. Jon Kyl and John McCain urge Arizonans to vote for Ruth McClung.
In one of the ads in question, GOP Sens. Jon Kyl and John McCain urge Arizonans to vote for Ruth McClung.
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By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 20, 2010; 8:57 PM

The irony is hard to miss: Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a co-architect of one of the most sweeping campaign finance laws in U.S. history, was accused by Democrats on Wednesday of violating that very statute.

But the McCain campaign called the allegations a baseless stunt, saying the Democrats don't have their facts straight.

In a complaint filed with the Federal Election Commission, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee alleged that television ads in support of two House candidates from Arizona violate the tenets of the McCain-Feingold law, the landmark legislation enacted in 2002 that put broad limits on the campaign finance system.

In the ads, paid for by the Friends of John McCain campaign committee, McCain appears alongside Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) urging voters to support GOP candidates Ruth McClung and Jesse Kelly. The DCCC says the ads amount to an illegal "in kind" contribution over the limits in McCain-Feingold.

"John McCain chose to air television commercials that violate the campaign finance legislation that bears his name, rejecting McCain's years of work on campaign finance reform," said DCCC spokeswoman Jennifer Crider.

The McCain campaign flatly rejected the allegations, releasing documents showing that it reported the ads as "independent expenditures" to the Senate this week. The DCCC complaint suggested that the campaign had not taken that step.

"It's not surprising that Democrats would try to change the subject from their struggling ticket with a baseless, frivolous complaint intended as a publicity stunt," said McCain spokesman Brian Rogers. "Sen. McCain has always followed the letter and the spirit of the campaign finance law."

The DCCC's allegations are part of a broader effort by Democrats to portray McCain, the 2008 GOP presidential nominee, as a political opportunist who has turned his back on his past as a moderate. He reversed or softened his positions on immigration and other issues in the face of a tea party primary challenge this year, and he has remained mum about a Supreme Court ruling that effectively gutted his signature campaign finance law.

McClung is challenging Rep. Raul M. Grijalva (D) in Arizona's 7th District, while Kelly is running against Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) in the 8th District. The incumbents have each outraised their opponents by about 10 to one in the two districts, which border Mexico.

The DCCC's complaint alleges two basic violations by McCain. First, the Democrats argue, the ads violate a $4,800 limit on noncash contributions to a campaign. Second, they say, the commercials run afoul of rules limiting a campaign committee to supporting only one candidate, with a small $2,000 exception.

But the McCain campaign says the ads do not break campaign finance rules because they were declared as independent expenditures, which are not treated like contributions. Friends of McCain said it spent $80,000 on each of the ad buys, records show.

Kenneth A. Gross, a campaign finance expert at the Skadden Arps law firm, said treating such ads as independent expenditures "is a valid explanation, provided there is no evidence of coordination" between the McCain campaign and the other two candidates.

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