N.H. GOP seeks investigation into Shaheen's ties to Democratic Senate Majority PAC
U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen meets with the Monitor for an editorial review board; Monday, March 21, 2011.
FILE - In this Nov. 4, 2012, file photo, then-Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., waves to supporters from his bus after a campaign rally at Faneuil Hall in Boston. Three years ago, Brown was a little-known Republican state senator from Massachusetts who shocked Democrats by winning a U.S. Senate seat. Now, having compiled a voting record more moderate than his tea party allies would have liked and losing his bid for a full term, Brown is considering whether to seize a second chance to return to the Senate in another special election. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, File)
The New Hampshire Republican Party has accused Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of illegally coordinating with an outside money group and requested a formal investigation by the Federal Election Commission yesterday.
“Senator Jeanne Shaheen’s obvious and brazen attempt to coordinate with Senator Harry Reid’s outside money super PAC raises very serious ethical and legal concerns that must be addressed,” Jennifer Horn, chairwoman of the state Republican Party, said in a statement.
The complaint relates to a recent ad by the Democratic Senate Majority PAC, which attacks Scott Brown, Shaheen’s top opponent, for his relationship with “big oil.” The $212,000 ad buy came days after Shaheen’s team promoted talking points about Brown’s and Shaheen’s record on environmental issues. The release was promoted as an “Important Message for New Hampshire,” which is the same language several other Democratic senators used to promote messages that were later picked up in Senate Majority PAC ads. The complaint asks the FEC to request copies of all communication between Shaheen’s campaign, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and Senate Majority PAC.
Shaheen’s campaign denies any illegal coordination and called the complaint “phony.”
“It has no merit and is entirely false,” Harrell Kirstein, Shaheen’s campaign spokesman, said.
Although Shaheen’s campaign says it has nothing to do with the advertisement, former governor John H. Sununu joined the debate by calling on Shaheen and Reid to take it off the air.
“Until we know for sure what has happened, these ads must come down,” Sununu said in a statement.
Under federal election law, candidates are barred from “coordinating” with outside spending groups known as super PACs. The U.S. Supreme Court vastly expanded the influence of outside money in politics in its 2010 Citizens United decision, which found that corporations and unions can contribute unlimited amounts of money to outside groups that aren’t connected to candidates. The high court’s majority found that this unlimited spending wouldn’t lead to corruption because it is not coordinated directly with candidates. (There are still limits on contributions to individual candidates.)
Since that decision, however, candidates from both parties have engaged in questionable activities that could be considered coordination, said Larry Noble, counsel at the Campaign Legal Center and former general counsel for the FEC. Some candidates, for example, post video footage of themselves without any words so that outside groups can use that footage in advertisements for the candidate. The law prohibits outside groups from “dissemination, distribution, or republication” or broadcast of written or graphic materials prepared by campaigns, reasoning that this would constitute an “illegal contribution” to the candidate.
“What we’re seeing right and left is activity that is clearly indicative of coordination going on,” Noble said. “It’s not the reality the Supreme Court thinks exists out there, and nobody is doing anything about it; the FEC isn’t doing anything about it.”
The Senate Majority PAC ad against Brown does not use any direct language from the seven-page memo put out by Shaheen’s campaign, although both carry the same thematic message that Brown helped oil companies receive tax breaks and benefited in campaign contributions. Without the use of exact phrases in the ad, it’s hard to say the ad constitutes “republication,” Noble said.
“It’s not a direct taking or culling of her language,” Noble said.
When complaints are filed, there’s a lengthy process before they are heard. The FEC, which is made up of three Republican and three Democratic commissioners, frequently deadlocks on decisions and has failed to take swift action on recent cases. A 2010 complaint against Frank Guinta regarding his personal finances, for example, still has not been resolved, and the FEC keeps its investigations confidential while they are ongoing.
All of these factors mean that, especially in an election year, complaints primarily serve as a way to make partisan attacks that grab headlines, said Dave Levinthal, a senior reporter for the Center for Public Integrity covering campaign finance law and the FEC.
“It’s a fantastic way for them to try to paint the (opposing) candidate as a hypocrite or to score political points” he said. “But is this going to result in the FEC coming down with some massive fine against the Shaheen campaign? That probably is as likely as New Hampshire and Vermont merging into one state.”
(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @kronayne.)