WASHINGTON - Former Sen. Norm Coleman and Sen. Al Franken haven't crossed paths publicly since their bruising Senate campaigns last year, but they now find themselves on opposite sides of a recent high court ruling that could shape races across the country this fall.
In the Citizens United case, a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision on corporate influence in politics, the justices ruled that corporations can advertise for or against specific candidates in virtually unlimited amounts.
Franken, a Democrat, is trying to curb the impact of that decision with a bill that would require more disclosure for groups participating in direct advocacy. Meanwhile, Coleman, a Republican, plans to use the new political tool to advocate for candidates in the upcoming elections.
Coleman's latest venture, a conservative advocacy group called the American Action Network, is examining ways to support "center-right" politicians -- likely through several mediums such as television ads. Before the ruling, advocacy groups such as American Action had to confine their advocacy to issues rather than candidates.
"I think you could see a direct advocacy side, yes, to the American Action Network," said Rob Collins, president of the group -- Coleman is CEO.
Campaign finance experts said groups such as American Action could be among the chief beneficiaries of the corporate money, because they do not have to disclose their donors, and corporations may be reluctant to sponsor their own ads.
"A lot of corporate America is wary about getting involved in partisan races and angering shareholders and spending money of that nature," said Michael Toner, a former Republican chairman of the Federal Election Commission.
Coleman said his group is interested in supporting candidates. "We'll follow the law in terms of what we're allowed to do, how we're allowed to do it," he said. The former senator downplayed the significance of the court ruling, but said, "It certainly allows you to have a more targeted message than before."
'I approve this message'
With mid-term elections fast approaching, Democrats in Congress are looking to tamp down the effect of the landmark case, which they fear could spur a wave of undisclosed corporate donations to campaigns. Democrats introduced a bill recently that imposes a variety of disclosure requirements on companies.
Franken, a co-sponsor of the bill, included a provision that prevents foreign-owned or controlled companies from influencing U.S. elections.
The legislation would require companies to reveal their top five donors in advertisements and to disclose advocacy expenses online. Analysts predict these rules could affect the number of corporations that engage in that type of advocacy.
"This won't stop it, but it will mitigate the effect of it," Franken said of the corporate funding. "This will say, 'This is who is paying for this.'"
Notably, the bill would also require the advocacy organization's top officer to approve their message on camera -- a responsibility that could fall to Coleman if his group runs TV ads.
Collins says the Democrats' effort is a thinly disguised gambit to help their party in the fall elections. "I think we would be opposed to any legislation that is just an attempt by the left, liberals, Democrats ... to lock in their market share," Collins said in an interview before the bill was introduced.
Marc Elias, the powerful attorney who steered Franken to victory in the 2008 Senate campaign, argues that the current rules leave too much unsaid about who's paying for political ads.
"If someone watches a television commercial and sees at the end it's sponsored by the American Action Network, no one knows what that means," Elias said. "The question is who gave money to the American Action Network."
Toner, the former FEC chair, said the legislative fight ahead could create odd alliances between advocacy groups on both sides that want to protect their donors.
"This is one of those interesting issues where the far left and the far right often come together as strange bedfellows," Toner said.
Eric Roper • 202-408-2723