What The Republicans Learned From Donorgate: New Tricks

All year long, Republicans have been bashing President Clinton for circumventing--if not boldly violating--federal campaign-finance laws during the '96 election. Yet even as the Thompson Committee in the Senate and the Burton Committee in the House probe the mysterious donations and creative accounting of the Democrats' Donorgate mess, Republicans are refining some of those very same ploys as they pump big bucks into three hotly contested Nov. 4 elections.

The party is banking that its money edge will help win a congressional election in Staten Island and gubernatorial showdowns in Virginia and New Jersey, where Governor Christie Whitman is fighting for her political life. And Republicans think a big-bucks blitz will be crucial in '98, when the House will be up for grabs. Control will likely be decided by 40 close contests. Democrats, mired in debt because of the fund-raising scandal, will be hard put to match the Republican cash machine.

The GOP's big push has campaign-finance reformers worried that '97 will signal another low-water mark, as national parties inject huge amounts of unregulated and hard-to-trace campaign cash into congressional and state races, much as they did during last year's Presidential contest. Democratic National Committee Chairman Steven Grossman, however, vows that his party won't try to copy the Republicans, accusing them of "the grossest form of hypocrisy."

"FLOODGATES." Indeed, election-law experts say GOP tactics violate the spirit, and perhaps the letter, of the law. "Basically, the floodgates have opened even further, and money is flooding the political system," laments Charles Lewis of the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity. "The Republicans are exploiting the gray areas of our very broken campaign-finance system." Moreover, critics say, the GOP can cross the line with impunity, since the Federal Election Commission or Justice Dept. won't act until after Nov. 4. "At worst, they know their wrists will be slapped in a gentle way after the fact," says Grossman.

Republicans deny any wrongdoing, saying they're merely using legal means to gain an advantage. "We will support our candidates in every way we can within the parameters of the law," says Republican National Committee spokesman Clifford May. "That's why we have high-priced lawyers."

What is the GOP doing? In the unexpectedly tight race to replace Staten Island (N.Y.) Republican Susan Molinari, who quit the House to become a television anchor, the party is blanketing the airwaves with $750,000 worth of "issue advocacy" ads that blast Democrat Eric Vitaliano for supporting tax hikes. Democrats say the ads are campaign plugs for Republican Vito Fossella financed primarily with unlimited "soft money"--donations by wealthy individuals and corporations that aren't covered by federal contribution caps because the dough goes directly to the parties, ostensibly for party-building activities."It's a blatant violation of the law," protests New York Democratic Party Chair Judith Hope. "If they can get away with this, there are no rules left." Republicans insist that the ads are legal because they don't specifically ask voters to choose Fossella. That's the sort of response the Democrats have made to GOP charges that the Democratic National Committee's pro-Clinton ads in '96 were illegal.

In the tight New Jersey race, the RNC has spent $750,000 on a similar TV assault warning voters that a Democratic governor would raise taxes. That dovetails nicely with Whitman's tax-cutting theme. Democrats say the media blitz has been coordinated with the Whitman campaign to skirt the state's spending limits. But state regulators decided on Oct. 21 that the ads--60% financed by soft money--were legally financed.

Republicans are test-marketing another loophole in Virginia. Democrats there accuse them of funneling more than $1 million from national committee funds to the state party and its candidate for governor, Jim Gilmore. Since national committees are not required to tell Virginia officials the origin of their funds, Democrats say the GOP may be hiding big cash infusions from controversial sources, such as corporate polluters and Big Tobacco. That's exactly what the Republicans say the Clinton campaign did in 1996 to obscure contributions from leftist groups and foreigners. Republicans say the Dems are making baseless charges because their candidate, Lieutenant Governor Don Beyer, is trailing Gilmore.

Campaign-finance reformers think GOP behavior this fall explains why Republicans are so resistant to overhauling the system. "When you see these kinds of scams, it shows what is going to happen if you don't pass fundamental reform," says Common Cause President Ann McBride. But with polls showing almost total public apathy about the issue, Republicans have few fears about dodging the law and blocking reform. Losing control of Congress is a much bigger worry.