Last fall, Democratic incumbent Lynn Adelman was locked in a tight race for his Wisconsin State Senate seat when, suddenly, a week before the election, he faced a $100,000 television advertising blitz.
The media deluge was not funded by his Republican opponent. Instead, it was organized and financed entirely by the state's largest business group, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce. The group's TV campaign portrayed Mr. Adelman, a 20-year Senate veteran, as an antireform "liberal" who "put the rights of criminals ahead of the rights of victims."
Adelman's election eve nightmare was similar to that of hundreds of other candidates nationwide last year who found themselves running not only against their declared political opponents, but also against well-funded business, labor, or other special-interest groups.
Armed with US Supreme Court decisions defending their free speech, such groups are increasingly placing expensive media advertisements during the critical last weeks of elections. Their coming of age illustrates one of the thorniest issues on Congress's agenda for campaign-finance reform.
Targeted politicians view it as an effort by unregulated special interests to influence the final outcome of elections.
"It is just so blatant," Adelman says. "There is not a shade of subtlety or doubt about it."
But the groups say they are merely exercising their First Amendment right to educate voters about important public issues.
"We don't see this as a campaign issue. We see this as a free-speech issue," says Jim Pugh of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce. "We recognize that communication - particularly television - can have an impact on people's decisions when they go to vote, but that impact is irrelevant to our constitutional right to express our point of view."
Proponents of campaign-finance reform say the proliferation of "issue advocacy" groups threatens to undermine the integrity of elections throughout the country at the federal, state, and local levels. If the trend continues, they warn, candidates will increasingly become merely bit players in their own election campaigns.
"It is a very, very big problem," says Don Simon of Common Cause. "Unless corrected, it is likely to become even bigger in the next election."
Mr. Simon says no one is sure how much issue advocacy groups spent in 1996, but the amount may have reached $100 million. The largest chunk - $25 million to $35 million - was doled out by the AFL-CIO in a well-publicized campaign to unseat congressional Republicans. The effort contributed to Republican defeats in Connecticut, California, North Carolina, Ohio, and Washington - but was not enough to prevent the Republicans from retaining control of both houses of Congress.
Precise spending estimates are difficult because such groups are not required to report their expenditures or disclose their funding sources. By contrast, candidates and their parties must do so under federal and state election laws.
"Without some legislative [reform], more and more you are going to have campaigns run by people other than the candidates," says Bob Schiff of the Washington-based watchdog group Public Citizen. "And you are going to have unlimited spending by groups and corporations that have no obligation to disclose their expenditures and no limits on where the money can come from."
Going to court
In the case of Wisconsin's Adelman, he took the state business group to court, claiming it was attempting to influence the election's outcome. He and his lawyers argued that the WMC-funded TV ads violated a state law that forbids companies from contributing to or engaging in political activities.
Lawyers for the business group replied that the ads were permitted because they were merely educational. They cited the supporting US Supreme Court decisions and told Adelman the WMC had a constitutional right to run its ads as long as they did not specifically urge viewers to vote either for or against a particular candidate.
The state judge found that the ad was designed to hurt Adelman's reelection chances. He ordered the WMC to stop airing the ads. "In my case we got the ads off the air, and I won with 52 percent to 48 percent," Adelman says. "If we hadn't succeeded [in court], who knows, it could have been different."
Mr. Pugh of WMC says his group's advertising techniques mirrored those of the AFL-CIO. "We think we should have the same free-speech rights as labor and there ought to be a level playing field," he says.
Adelman's victory is unusual. Most candidates complaining of similar tactics have lost in court, with judges citing two US Supreme Court cases. Those cases say that groups unrelated to a candidate have a First Amendment right to unlimited political speech through television advertising and in publications, so long as they do not blatantly urge voters to support one candidate or reject the other.
The ruling reflects the high court's reluctance to impose any restrictions on political speech of private groups or individuals.
CONCERNS ABOUT POLITICAL SPENDING BY ADVOCACY GROUPS
* Advocacy spending is unregulated, making it difficult for voters to determine who or what paid for the ads.
* Danger exists that issue advocacy groups could take over some hotly contested races, transforming the debate into an ideological war waged by groups unconnected to the candidates.
* Advocacy groups bought so much air time in some places that they "were choking off the election-related speech" of candidates themselves, says E. Joshua Rosenkranz, a legal expert in campaign-finance reform at the Brennan Center for Justice in New York.
* Candidates have no control over the message - or tactics - used in their behalf by advocacy groups. Yet a candidate may lose supporters if such an ad uses tactics of questionable taste or legality.