American Crossroads, a conservative "super PAC" linked to former Bush adviser Karl Rove, is asking the Federal Election Commission for permission to use federal candidates and office holders in its ads.
The request, filed Wednesday with the FEC, could potentially undermine campaign finance laws that have long prohibited direct coordination between outside groups and political candidates.
But in a letter sent to the FEC, attorneys for American Crossroads argue they are simply seeking permission to do what Democrats are already doing. As evidence, they site a series of recent campaign ads starring Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson, in which he is shown explaining his votes on the debt ceiling and other hot button issues.
The spots look like campaign ads for Nelson, who is facing a tough path to re-election next year. But they were paid for by the Nebraska Democratic State Central Committee, an offshoot of the state Democratic party, with funds routed to the committee by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the fundraising arm of Senate Democrats in Washington.
So far, Democrats have spent at least $600,000 on the ads, which do not explicitly encourage viewers to vote for Nelson in 2012 even though it is strongly implied. Nelson's campaign has said the ads don't violate rules limiting coordination because the spots don't call for Nelson's re-election.
But that's an excuse Republicans aren't buying. Last week, the Nebraska Republican Party filed an ethics complaint against Nelson over the ads, asking the Senate to investigate whether the ads are unfairly benefitting Nelson's agenda and re-election campaign.
You can watch one of the spots below, via the Nebraska Democratic Party:
Attorneys for American Crossroads are asking the FEC if they can "adopt the tactics" of NDSCC and Nelson by featuring "on-camera footage of incumbent members of Congress who might face uncertain re-election prospects."
"Such advertisements would be thematically similar to the incumbent members' own re-election campaign materials, and may use phrases or slogans that the member has previously used," the attorneys, Thomas Josefiak and Michael Bayes, wrote in a letter to the FEC Wednesday. "The purpose of these advertisements, while focused on current legislative and policy issues, would be to improve the public's perception of the featured member of congress in advance of the 2012 campaign season."
If the FEC takes up the request, the decision has the potential to be a major game changer in the 2012 campaign. Campaign finance laws strictly restrict any appearance of coordination between outside groups and political candidates, but those lines of division would be incredibly blurred should politicians be permitted to star and participate in ads not paid for by their own campaigns.
In addition to changing the landscape of congressional races, the rule, if waived, could potentially allow 2012 hopefuls to appear in ads paid for by super PACs being run by supporters of their campaigns. Over the summer, the FEC granted an exception to the law allowing political candidates to raise cash and appear at fundraisers thrown by super PACs soliciting cash to support their campaigns.
American Crossroads, along with its sister group, Crossroads GPS, spent more than $70 million to boost Republican candidates during the 2010 campaign. In August, they doubled their 2012 fundraising goal from $120 million to $240 million—with most of that money targeted toward blocking President Obama's bid for re-election.
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