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The unintended effects of campaign 'reform'

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By Rob Witwer

If you think you’re seeing more negative campaign ads this year, it’s not just you. 2010 is shaping up to be an all-time high — or low — for negative campaigning. It’s gotten so bad, a recent Denver Post headline read, “It’s a miracle! Some positive campaign ads!” I still haven’t seen those yet.

The New York Times reports this phenomenon is partly a function of a lopsided political environment. “Democratic candidates across the country are opening a fierce offensive of negative advertisements against Republicans, using lawsuits, tax filings, reports from the Better Business Bureau and even divorce proceedings to try to discredit their opponents and save their congressional majority,” the Times reported. “Opposition research and attack advertising are used in almost every election, but these biting ads are coming far earlier than ever before, according to party strategists.”

But there’s something else at work too, and that’s the continuing growth of political spending by outside groups. These groups — with names that all sound something like “Coloradans for Mom, Home & Apple Pie” — masquerade as good-government nonprofits but in truth are just partisan entities. Organized under sections 527 and 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code, they operate in the shadowy corners of political campaigns. They are out there influencing our votes, but good luck finding out just who or how much money is behind them.

USA Today reports that spending by such groups is up by 61 percent this year, a stunning figure. And because they operate with relative anonymity, they’re free to take as many liberties with the truth (and with taste) as they see fit. Unlike candidates who must temper their messages or face a voter backlash, attack groups aren’t on the ballot and can’t be held accountable.

Ironically, campaign finance reform measures are at least partially to blame for this sad state of affairs. In 2002, Congress passed McCain-Feingold, and Colorado enacted Amendment 27. These two laws capped the amount of money candidates and political parties could raise and spend. Proponents promised cleaner, more transparent elections, with big money being forced out of the process. Instead, big money migrated into the shadows.

There may be no way to put the campaign finance genie back into the bottle. But we can help offset some of its worst effects by viewing all negative ads — regardless of the source — with a skeptical eye.

Rob Witwer is a former member of the Colorado House of Representatives and co-author of the book, “The Blueprint: How the Democrats Won Colorado (and Why Republicans Everywhere Should Care).”