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October 23, 2012

HOWEY: The attempted sale of Indiana’s Senate seat

INDIANAPOLIS — In a U.S. Senate race engulfed by obfuscated national special interest money, Democrat Joe Donnelly said that the seat is being “sold.”

And Republican Richard Mourdock?

When I asked the Republican nominee following his debate with Donnelly last Monday night whether he was concerned about the $14 million in outside money spilling in, Mourdock answered, “That’s a fair question. It’s something that’s come about under Citizens United and all the rest of it. This race will very likely determine which party controls the U.S. Senate.”

Mourdock briefly paused, then said, “I want to be very careful here. Some candidates have gotten in trouble — accused of sending a message independent of what they said in the microphone. I’m not doing that.”

Mourdock restated the question: “Am I comfortable with the system when so much money comes in?” He then answered: “I wish we had a better system.”

The irony with Mourdock’s answer is that one of his earliest supporters and a critical fundraiser is Jim Bopp Jr., the Terre Haute attorney who helped engineer both the Citizens United and SpeechNow.org cases that prompted rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court that have completely changed how competitive congressional races are financed.

It was Bopp, more than any other American, who created the current system that has allowed Mourdock’s outsourced campaign to not only knock off U.S. Sen. Dick Lugar, but has kept him in a dead heat race against Donnelly this fall. It was a legal response to the McCain-Feingold campaign finance laws that Bopp saw as an impediment to free speech.

In Bopp’s mind, the new paradigm allows corporations and rich Republican donors to offset multiple generations of labor union money that had flowed into Democratic campaigns, though business money also flowed into GOP campaigns in the old days.

Bopp has been in the news a lot these days. He was ousted as a Republican National Committeeman this year after he proposed a 10-point “purity” litmus’ test in 2009. Last week, he funded a Super PAC mailer alluding to a Lugar endorsement of Mourdock, which hasn’t happened.

Almost from the onset of Mourdock’s Senate campaign, he talked openly about the geyser of national money that was destined to come his way.

“I’m confident that there will be a lot of outside money coming in to help us,” Mourdock said.

It’s easy to see the origins of that understanding. When Mourdock kicked off his Senate campaign in February 2011, Bopp was conspicuous in his presence. Essentially, Mourdock has become Exhibit A in Bopp’s campaign finance lab, the political Frankenstein that has been amply funded by Club For Growth, the National Rifle Association, Americans For Prosperity, FreedomWorks and Crossroads GPS.

When the dust settles, the vast majority of advertising on behalf of Mourdock’s candidacy won’t be from his campaign committee, but from the Super PACs.

As of early October, Super PACs that were created after the SpeechNow.org vs. Federal Election Commission case in 2010, had pumped in more than $9.2 million on behalf of Mourdock’s campaign. Donnelly has received $5.5 million as of early this month.

And those numbers are growing exponentially almost every day during the campaign homestretch. Just this week, Club For Growth announced it was spending another $600,000 on behalf of Mourdock after spending $1.8 million in the primary. Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS that is spending another $1 million attacking Donnelly, on top of $2 million announced earlier. Add in the $4 million that Lugar and Super PACs on his behalf and the total is approaching $20 million.

And while Club For Growth’s Chris Chocola insists that Super PAC donors are transparent, thumbing through FEC reports and determining where those funds being bundled into the Indiana Senate race actually come from is extremely complicated. It’s nothing like the old days when the candidate’s quarterly FEC campaign reports listed individual donors, those from political action committees, and campaign expenses.

“He’s the lord of darkness, really,” Laura MacCleery, a lawyer with the Center for Reproductive Rights, told the American Prospect’s Viveca Novak in a January article about Bopp. “His whole campaign has been about defeating efforts to make the role of money in politics transparent.”

Donnelly was blunt in his assessment.

“I think that there are people out there trying to buy Indiana’s Senate seat,” he said. “Indiana’s Senate seat ought to belong to the people of Indiana. The Supreme Court decision a few years ago — Citizens United — was a terrible mistake.”

Most of the funding and messaging decisions on behalf of the Mourdock candidacy aren’t being made in Indiana, but in New York and Washington. Everyone involved — i.e. Mourdock’s nuanced answer to my question, to Chocola, Dick Armey and Karl Rove — are playing a game with us saying this is all uncoordinated.

Donnelly acknowledged that he, too, is accepting Super PAC funds.

“I’m not going to unilaterally disarm,” he explained. “Mr. Mourdock’s campaign has basically been a complete Washington operation. It’s like they own a franchise out here. “

This is a new game, a new way politics is funded, and you’re watching it every day on TV.

— This columnist publishes at howeypolitics.com. Find him on Twitter @hwypol.

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