WASHINGTON -- Republicans moved to stop pro-Democrat groups from spending millions to defeat President Bush, filing a federal complaint yesterday that accuses the Kerry campaign of illegally coordinating its political ads and get-out-the-vote activities with anti-Bush groups.
The GOP complaint reflected the concern among the Bush-Cheney team about the influence of the outside groups, which, combined with Kerry's campaign, nearly have matched the Republicans' ad buying. The complaint to the Federal Election Commission also was the first step in a case that could end up in court.
"They're making a mockery of what the rules are," Bush campaign chairman Marc Racicot said in unveiling the complaint. The GOP cited fund-raising solicitations, overlapping strategists, and the timing of ads as proof that Kerry and the outside Democratic groups were coordinating their efforts.
Kerry's campaign dismissed the complaint as political gamesmanship.
"John Kerry and his campaign have nothing to do with these ads or the groups that run them," Michael Meehan, a senior adviser to Kerry, said in a statement.
The complaint accuses Senator John F. Kerry, pro-Kerry groups, and donors of violating the campaign law that broadly prohibits using corporate, union, and unlimited donations known as soft money to influence federal elections.
In a highly unusual move, the Bush campaign and Republican Party asked the FEC to dismiss the complaint immediately and clear the way for them to take the case to court through a lawsuit.
Usually complainants pursue FEC action before going to court, even though it could take months or even years for the commission to resolve complaints. But the Bush campaign said it was seeking a speedy ruling to cut off the flow of millions in soft money to the Democratic groups.
"No penalty, civil or criminal, after the fact could possibly remedy the irreparable harm caused by allowing this illegal activity to continue unabated," the GOP complaint says.
The complaint alleges $1 million-plus donors to the groups, such as billionaire George Soros, broke the law by knowingly giving soft money to finance presidential election activities. The groups and Soros contend they are operating legally.
The Republican complaint focuses in part on two groups, MoveOn.org and the Media Fund, that ran ads in March criticizing Bush in several battleground states. Kerry, too, has been airing ads in key states, but on a much smaller scale.
The complaint cites at least three factors it says proves coordination: links between people involved in some of the soft-money groups and the Kerry campaign during the same election cycle, the timing of media buys in the same states and media markets, and TV stations receiving a Media Fund ad on Kerry's economic plan before Kerry delivered a speech on an element of his economic plan.
The Kerry speech last Friday on a corporate tax proposal had been planned for days. The Media Fund ad on Kerry's economic positions mentioned only what Kerry had been saying publicly for months.
"I'd call it slanderous nonsense -- the typical Republican politics of intimidation," said Media Fund spokesman Jim Jordan, who was formerly Kerry's campaign manager and is named in the complaint.
MoveOn president Wes Boyd called the charges "baseless and irresponsible."
It is difficult to prove illegal coordination. Political ad buys are public record, and it's common practice for campaigns and interest groups to watch where others buy airtime and react accordingly.
"They're going to need more than just showing there is a parallelism between what the Media Fund does and what the Kerry campaign does," for example, said Larry Noble, head of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics and former FEC general counsel. "They're going to have to show some discussion, some meeting, at least some sharing of information between the Kerry campaign and these organizations."
Others named in the complaint are the pro-Democrat groups America Coming Together, America Votes, Voices for Working Families, and Moving America Forward; major donors, including Soros, who has pledged millions to anti-Bush soft-money efforts; and leaders of the groups, including New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, a Democrat and chairman of the Democratic National Convention.