The electioneering bill: I don't get it
Mon May 18, 2009 1:12 pm

This is Todd Smith's bill that passed on Friday. It is a good and much-needed election reform bill as a response to U.S. Supreme Court rulings that corporate and union PACs may lawfully expend funds for the purpose of issue advocacy, but not for directly supporting candidates. This leaves a loophole known as "sham electioneering." This tactic, often used in direct mail, typically employs an attack ad against a candidate for supporting or opposing a hot-button issue but does not ask the potential voter to support or oppose a candidate. Rather, it may say, "Call Representative Smith's office and ask him to stop supporting baby killers." This is bad stuff. Readers may recall the photograph of two men kissing that was used against Bill Ratliff a few years back.

My interest in the bill is political rather than substantive. The opposition comes from Republican party, the Texas Association of Business--Bill Hammond has always had an all's fair in love an politics approach to elections, and from the activist groups on the extreme right of the Republican spectrum. Here's what I don't get: Why are the Republicans so opposed to this bill? I understand that these mailers have been used effectively in the past. Hammond took credit for winning the 2002 House elections that gave the Republicans a majority with his tort reform mailers. But he's wrong. TAB didn't win the election. The Legislative Redistricting Board won the election. Anyway, the bill isn't about the past. It's about the future. I fail to see any partisan advantage or disadvantage if this bill passes. Groups on the right and the left alike will no longer be able to engage in sham electioneering.

Only six Republicans voted for this bill, and four of them (Geren, Jones, McCall, Merritt) have been victims of sham electioneering. Todd Smith and Hartnett were the other two votes for passage. The reason for the low number of aye votes was that the extremist groups were demanding no votes from Republican reps. And the members folded like a canvas chair.

Under current law, Democrats as well as Republicans can practice sham electioneering. The current state of Texas politics is that the two parties are competitive, with a slight edge to the Republicans, but demographics favor the Democrats. Until recently, Republicans had a substantial advantage in fundraising, but the Democrats achieved parity in many legislative races during the 2008 cycle. Again I ask: Why do Republicans want to defeat this legislation? Have they forgotten about trial lawyers? They can raise a buck or two--or three million. Can't the trials put out these mailers too? I see no particular reason why the Republicans are any better placed than the Democrats to win this arms race. As I said in the beginning: I don't get it.

But wait: Maybe this is not about R versus D politics at all. Maybe this is about R versus R politics. Maybe the extremist groups want to use sham electioneering in Republican primaries, so that they can defeat moderate candidates in 2010. Maybe I do get it after all. And if that is the case, then Smith's bill has no chance to become law. Either Dewhurst will kill it for the extremist groups, or Perry will veto it if the bill gets to his desk. They know who runs the Republican party.

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