Court delves into campaign sponsors

By Scott Mooneyham | Nov 26, 2012

RALEIGH -- The state Court of Appeals recently threw out a lawsuit that came as a result of the 2010 elections.

It was no typical dismissing of a suit.

The case had to do with the state's Stand by Your Ad law, the thing that requires candidates to make that statement at the end of their ads, "I'm so-and-so, and I sponsored this ad."

A former Democratic state senator, Joe Sam Queen, sued the Republican who won his mountain district seat, Sen. Ralph Hise, and the state Republican Party because the party paid for a Hise ad but failed to disclose that it was the sponsor.

A three-member panel of the court ruled that there was little difference between the two campaigns.

Both received substantial support from their respective political parties. In Hise's case, the party spent the money directly on his behalf; in Queen's case, the party money made a brief stop in his campaign account before being spent on TV ads.

The court concluded that it was a difference without distinction, and therefore Queen was not entitled to monetary penalties from his opponent's campaign.

The ruling said that both candidates should have included disclosures where both candidate and political party were mentioned.

What all this means is that, beginning in the next campaign season, a lot of TV ads for legislative candidates may involve more disclosures.

The reason is that most legislative candidates in contested, swing districts raise just a fraction of the money spent on their campaigns. The rest comes from money raised by legislative leaders, who funnel the money through the political parties.

The money is funneled through political parties because individual legislator's campaigns are limited to giving no more than $4,000 to other candidates.

But state law allows candidates to make unlimited donations to political parties, and for those political parties to make unlimited donations to candidate's campaigns.

In reaching the conclusion that there was no real difference between the actions of Hise's and Queen's respective campaigns, the court delved pretty deeply into campaign funding and  ad buying.

The ruling makes one wonder why the court decided to stop at the political parties.

If the judges were going to interpret that Queen's money came from the state Democratic Party, even with its brief stop in his campaign committee, why not look at its earlier origins?

Queen's ad could have concluded: "I'm Joe Sam Queen. I'm Marc Basnight. I'm Tony Rand. And we and the state Democratic Party paid for this ad."

Hise's ad could have finished: "I'm Ralph Hise. I'm Phil Berger. I'm Tom Apodaca. We and the state Republican Party sponsored this ad."

While the court was delving, it also could have looked at just what defines a political party. Is it separate House and Senate caucuses, allowed to create separate accounts for their respective candidates based on the amounts raised by their respective leaders?

Too much delving, and legislators might have had to go back to work rewriting campaign finance laws.