U.S. candidates voice mixed opinions on campaign finance

Megan Boldt

In past elections, the campaign finance issue sat on the back burner while candidates and legislators disagreed about issues such as tax cuts and education.
But with campaigns becoming more expensive each election year — including the Minnesota U.S. Senate race, which is the nation’s third most expensive race — some candidates are declaring a need for change.
The voices for reform cross party lines, and more than once Congress has tried to pass bipartisan legislation to alter the financing of political campaigns.
But University professor Frank Sorauf, a national expert on campaign finance, said campaign finance will not be a major priority for federal candidates this year.
The only candidate who talked about reforming the system was Arizona Sen. John McCain, Sorauf said. McCain dropped out of the running for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination this spring.
“(Campaign finance) isn’t the kind of issue the candidates want,” Sorauf explained.
Within the debate over campaign finance this election the two core issues are soft money and unregulated issues advertisements, he said.
Soft money is a loophole for big-dollar contributors to donate unlimited amounts of funding. To skirt around federal regulations, these donors give large contributions to political parties, which are supposed to be marked for party building.
The money is not supposed to be used to aid candidate campaigns, Sorauf explained, but benefits them both directly and indirectly. National parties funnel some of the money to state parties, which in turn help candidates through issue ads.
Sorauf said this directly helps state congressional candidates, revealing the link between soft money and issue ads.
“They are two sides of the same issue,” Sorauf explained.
The unregulated ads are not attributed to any group or candidate, and are protected by federal courts under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.
Minnesota Independence Party U.S. Senate candidate Jim Gibson lists campaign finance reform as a top priority on his campaign agenda.
His Web site includes a seven-page reform plan which includes restricting soft money contributions and unregulated issue ads. Gibson also calls for partial public financing of viable campaigns with broad-based support.
Phil Fuehrer, Gibson’s assistant campaign manager, said candidates need to move back to issue-based campaigns, rather than money-based campaigns.
“It shows the trend that all across the nation the system is being subverted to who has the most money or who can raise the most money,” Fuehrer said.
He also attacked Democrat Mark Dayton’s use of family wealth and Republican Sen. Rod Grams’ use of political action committee money to finance their U.S. Senate campaigns.
Political action committees are political organizations, but not parties, set up by individuals or organizations wanting to influence the political process. Examples include tobacco companies or unions which set up PACs to lobby or contribute to campaigns.
Dayton campaign manager Jim Gelbmann said the former state auditor feels fortunate to be able to finance his own campaign.
Dayton does not except PAC contributions or soft money, Gelbmann said, and the candidate also supports campaign contribution limits and complete disclosure of donations.
“It’s better to use your own resources rather than special interest money,” Gelbmann said.
Grams’ campaign did not respond to phone calls, but in the past the incumbent candidate has said restricting campaign contributions would restrict free speech.
Contributions from PACs have been highly contentious in the past, but Sorauf said it is an old issue now.
PAC donations are highly regulated and make up a small percentage of overall campaign contributions, he explained.
But, according to the Federal Election Commission’s’s report for campaigns during the 1999-2000 election cycle, about 27 percent of Grams’ campaign dollars came from PACs.
No matter how small or large the donations, whether voters care about campaign finance is questionable.
Sorauf said polls have shown voters are unhappy about the current campaign finance system, but the dissent is shallow.
Politicians are instead focusing on issues like health care and social security, he said, because those are the issues their potential constituents. talk about.
“Legislators aren’t getting letters about (campaign finance), so they don’t think it’s very important,” Sorauf said.