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April 7, 2014

BRIAN HOWEY: Terre Haute attorney's overhaul of U.S. election finance

Jim Bopp Jr. framed, argued Citizens United, SpeechNow

As Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock kicked off his U.S. Senate campaign in February 2011 at the Artsgarden, the most conspicuous person in the wings was Terre Haute attorney Jim Bopp Jr.

There stood the man who has changed the federal election finance system with a series of U.S. Supreme Court and district court victories he framed and argued — Citizens United, SpeechNow — and on Wednesday of this past week, McCutcheon v. the Federal Election Commission. Mourdock’s Republican primary challenge to U.S. Sen. Dick Lugar and, later, his losing race against Democrat Joe Donnelly, would be the petri dish of how two of those decisions would impact American and Indiana politics.

That 2012 Indiana Senate race would see $51 million spent by Mourdock, Lugar and Donnelly, and on their behalf by corporations and Super PACs — the political action committees that bundled donations and spent them, in theory, independent of the candidates. To give you contrast, Hoosier voters had not seen a U.S. Senate race over the $10 million mark.

So here’s a primer. Citizens United was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010 that basically ruled government has no right to regulate political speech, paving the way for corporate money to flood into political races. In March of 2010, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia issued a unanimous opinion in SpeechNow.org v. FEC, deciding the FEC could not limit donations to independent political groups that will spend money to support or oppose candidates. This essentially created the Super PACs — affiliated with groups like the National Rifle Association, Club For Growth, Crossroads GPS, Freedomworks, ActRight, Americans For Prosperity — that pumped in millions of dollars on behalf of Mourdock’s candidacy in the homestretch of the campaign that fall.

In the final weeks of the Mourdock/Donnelly race, Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS spent around $3 million on behalf of Mourdock. The irony is Hoosier TV and radio stations, newspapers, advertising agencies and campaign consulting groups saw little of this money. Most was spent on Fox News and to out-of-state direct mail houses. Donnelly received more than $5.5 million in a similar time frame from Democratic-affiliated advocacy groups.

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