tough, but casual. They call him wrangler. They look like campaign ads, they smell like campaign ads, and they sure as hell sound like campaign ads. But Jeff Merkley insists they're not campaign ads.
The TV spots started airing early this month. In the first of them, Merkley talks about how America has mistreated veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the next, he touts the record of the Oregon Legislature, and himself as House speaker, in toughening laws against meth and child sexual abusers. In the third, he attacks wasteful spending in Washington and brags about how, as a legislator, he worked to "put the middle class first."
The ads aren't being funded by the Merkley campaign; the Democratic Party of Oregon is paying for them, using money from the national Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. And that's where the problem is.
Federal law limits the amount of campaign money a US Senate candidate can receive from his state and national party to $485,200. Merkley had already gotten more than $386,000 from the party before the first of the ads was released. That's why the Merkley ads prompted Republican Gordon Smith's campaign to file a complaint with the Federal Elections Commission.
But the ads are perfectly kosher, Merkley and the DPO maintain, because of a loophole in the law that allows additional spending on "issue ads" - ads that discuss specific issues rather than pushing an individual candidate. Since the ads don't say that Merkley is a candidate for the Senate they're legally permitted, the argument goes.
That argument is so transparently phony that any reasonably intelligent six-year-old could see through it. Although the ads don't mention Merkley's candidacy or knock his opponent, they put Merkley's face on the TV screens of millions of Oregonians and describe what a swell guy he is and what great things he's done in Oregon - and, by clear implication, what great things he'd do in Washington.
"There's no legal question here," Merkley has said. "These ads are completely about the issues - issues that are very important to this country." Apparently we're supposed to think it's pure coincidence that these very important issues are being discussed in TV ads just a few months before a senatorial election.
The use of issue ads to get around the spending limit and push a candidate isn't new. But the Democrats have gone a big step further by having the candidate himself appear in the ads and talk up his own achievements. The experts are divided on whether the Democrats have technically crossed the line; the FEC, regrettably, is not expected to rule on Smith's complaint until after the election.
Maybe the dust-up over the Smith-Merkley race will get the FEC to close the loophole for issue ads, or at least clarify how broad it is. Meanwhile, although Merkley and the DPO are calling the Smith campaign "desperate" for complaining to the FEC, they're the ones who are looking desperate - and sleazy. Here's a BOOT for both of them.