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Ex-GOP candidates turn attacks back on national panel

WASHINGTON -- One advertisement accused the rival candidate of billing taxpayers for a call to a phone-sex line. One alleged that a candidate "fixed" his daughter's speeding tickets. Still others stated that a candidate endorsed a "coffee talk with the Taliban," and that another was supported by the Communist Party.

Each charge was misleading at best, demonstrably false at worst. Yet the National Republican Congressional Committee paid for each of those ads last year, and its leaders said they could do nothing to pull them, even after some of the Republicans whom the ads were designed to help demanded that they come down.

Now, four months after Republicans lost control of Congress, many of their former candidates are calling for major changes at the NRCC. They depict the committee as a rogue attack-ad shop that shielded party leaders from having to account for the claims in their ads -- encouraging over-the-top accusations that often hurt GOP candidates.

"They weren't just attacking my opponent -- they were, bit by bit, destroying a reputation that I had spent years and years building," said Ray Meier, a Republican candidate in upstate New York whose Democratic opponent was wrongly accused of making adult fantasy calls.

The NRCC funneled more than $83 million through a special "independent expenditure" arm that made all decisions regarding ads.

The creation of the independent entity meant that when candidates such as Meier called NRCC headquarters to complain about the ads, committee officials said they couldn't discuss them, much less yank them from the air, without violating campaign-finance law.

The law places strict limits on how much help national parties can offer candidates; in 2006, they were limited to about $80,000 in direct support of each House candidate. But court rulings have established the right of independent groups to spend unlimited sums.

Thus, national parties have been funneling their giant war chests into independent committees -- putting vast resources behind ads of a type that used to exist only on the political fringes.

The 1988 "Willie Horton" ad aimed at Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, for instance, was run by an independent group that had no ties to the Bush-Quayle campaign. Likewise, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attacked Democrat John F. Kerry in 2004, but was independent of President Bush's campaign.

But now, taking advantage of the latest loophole in the campaign-finance system, the national parties have started putting most of their advertising money into independent groups of their own creation. In 2006, spending by the Democratic and Republican parties' independent expenditure arms jumped 65 percent from 2004, to $202.4 million, according to Federal Election Commission data.

The parties have essentially created their own version of the Swift Boat Veterans -- entities that operate outside the normal political apparatus, said Fred Wertheimer, president of the government watchdog group Democracy 21.

"There's no accountability," he said. "When you have unaccountability on this stuff, people start overreaching. And this idea of creating a Chinese wall within the party, where the people who are doing the ads are kept separate from the people who are doing the expenditures, is a fiction."

Though both parties spent heavily on negative ads through their independent expenditure arms, the NRCC was by far the biggest spender last year, spreading around $20 million more than its Democratic counterpart. And watchdog groups have tagged the Republicans -- and the NRCC in particular -- as the worst offenders in stretching the truth.

Annenberg Political Fact Check, a nonpartisan group that studies campaign advertisements, called the NRCC's ads "the very definition of political mudslinging."

"The National Republican [Congressional] Committee's work stands out this year for the sheer volume of assaults on the personal character of Democratic House challengers," stated the Fact Check report, which also cited one Democratic ad as based on "flimsy evidence at best."

Representative Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican who is among the 2006 candidates who feel the NRCC's actions hurt his campaign, said he plans to file a bill that would allow candidates in both parties to prohibit the national parties from advertising on their behalf.

"I would have been better off if they didn't spend one penny on my race," said Shays. "The least we should do is give a candidate the ability to say no. "

The NRCC's chairman during the 2006 elections, Representative Thomas M. Reynolds of New York, defended the ads, saying they were well-documented and generally effective. He conceded that his independent expenditure arm "took a lot of liberties," but said Democratic committees also stretched the truth.

NRCC ads saved 10 to 20 Republican-held seats, Reynolds said. "Everybody has an opinion, and hindsight after an election is about 20-20," he said.

Last year, Reynolds put a veteran NRCC operative, Carl Forti, in charge of the party's independent committee. Reynolds said that, in keeping with the law, Forti made all advertising decisions and had no contact with his bosses at the NRCC while working on independent ads.

Forti, who now works as political director of the presidential campaign of former governor Mitt Romney, declined to comment, citing the NRCC's policy of not discussing independent expenditure operations publicly.

The independent expenditure operation spent $77 million attacking Democratic House candidates, while spending $6.6 million in positive ads boosting Republicans, according to FEC disclosures.

Among the attack ads was the television spot in Meier's race against Michael Arcuri, a former county district attorney. Arcuri's hotel bill from a business trip included a one-minute call to an adult talk service, which cost taxpayers $1.25. Immediately thereafter, another call was placed to a number that was identical except for the area code: the number for the state Department of Criminal Justice Services.

It was clearly a wrong number, but the NRCC stood by the ad. Arcuri won the race.

Similar alleged misstatements reverberated in races across the country. In North Carolina, an NRCC ad said that Democrat Heath Shuler was "caught again not paying his taxes on time." But Shuler had sold his majority stake in the business referenced in the ad in 2003. Shuler won his race, defeating an incumbent Republican.

In Indiana, Democrat Brad Ellsworth was accused of "fixing" his daughter's speeding tickets while serving as a county sheriff, though Annenberg Political Fact Check found the ticket was paid in full. Ellsworth also unseated an incumbent Republican.

In Iowa, an NRCC ad suggested that Democrat Bruce Braley was backed by the Communist Party, citing the fact that a party newspaper labeled Braley a "peace candidate." Republican candidate Mike Whalen said he immediately called friends in Washington to pressure the NRCC to take the ad down, but was told that nothing could be done because it was a product of the independent expenditure arm.

"I went ballistic, desperately trying to send the message through back channels," Whalen said. "They didn't care. They said, 'We don't have any control over it.' . . . That ad in particular I think sullied my reputation, and I will always resent that ad."

Braley beat Whalen by 12 percentage points in a district that had long been a GOP stronghold.

Voters in Connecticut received an NRCC mailing that accused Democrat Diane Farrell of wanting to have a "coffee talk with the Taliban." The NRCC's evidence: Farrell accepted a campaign contribution from a group that included a board member who had once suggested establishing talks with the Taliban.

Farrell's Republican opponent -- Shays -- said he called allies at the White House and the Republican National Committee to press the NRCC to repudiate the mailing.

But NRCC officials, Shays said, prevented him from speaking directly with Reynolds. Reynolds defended that move, saying the committee would have been violating the law if it permitted candidates to coordinate with the independent expenditure arm.

But some campaign-finance specialists dispute the claim that party committees couldn't stop ads they were paying for. While the law prevents party leaders from coordinating messages with their independent arms, they could have refused to pay for ads they disapproved of, said Paul S. Ryan, associate legal counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan group.

"The party leadership can close the purse strings when and if they don't like the ad coming out of their independent expenditure arm," Ryan said.

Because the Supreme Court has affirmed parties' rights to set up independent committees, party leaders say, they are likely to continue the practice .

Nonetheless, the NRCC's new leaders say they are listening to candidates' complaints. The new NRCC chairman, Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, appointed a task force to reevaluate the party's independent expenditure strategy.

Acknowledging lapses in "political judgment" last year, Cole said he wants assurances that his committee's ads will be factual as well as politically wise.

"When you get a lot of consultants in a hothouse, late in the campaign, and people really aren't responsible [for the message] because you're not working for the candidate, it's really easy to take a flier," Cole said.

Until party leaders take more responsibility for their ads, they are likely to frustrate more candidates. Meier, who gave up his state Senate seat to run for Congress, said he found it maddening to watch the campaign he waged on local issues make a sudden turn to the gutter.

"These scandalous and slanderous ads became the topic of conversation," Meier said. "Never having run for national office before, you know this is a mean business. You have no idea how mean."

Rick Klein can be reached at rklein@globe.com.

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