Former Sen. Fred Thompson, who is reportedly going to announce his candidacy for president soon, recently offered his video greetings to the annual convention of the National Right to Life Committee, an organization that endorsed him when he ran for Senate in 1994. While Thompson has so far been favorably received by the Religious Right– with the possible exception of James Dobson – the recent Supreme Court decision regarding the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act is a reminder that groups like NRLC may have second thoughts about him.
The case, FEC v. Wisconsin Right to Life, limited parts of the campaign-finance law that regulated “issue ads” implicating a candidate for office. While anti-abortion activists were not the only critics of the law to appreciate the decision, the case had a particular relevance for them with an NRLC state affiliate’s name on the docket. And such activists have also made campaign finance into a campaign issue for presidential candidate John McCain, the co-author of the bill – despite McCain’s fervent opposition to abortion.
When it comes to Thompson, these activists might remember his role as sherpa for John Roberts during his contentious confirmation to be chief justice of the Court, and Roberts was the author of the Wisconsin Right to Life decision. But, as National Journal reporter Marc Ambinder reminds us, Thompson was also a major backer of campaign reform during his time in the Senate, when he chaired the committee investigating campaign finance – and he picked a nasty fight with a handful of advocacy groups, including the same National Right to Life Committee.
In 1997, Thompson used a Senate government affairs committee hearing to probe the electioneering of National Right to Life and other groups, and his subpoena request for internal NRTL documents was strongly resisted by counsel — including James Bopp, Jr., who now advises Mitt Romney.
In addition, Thompson wrote a friend-of-the-court brief in 2003 in support of the law’s overturned provisions:
Thompson wrote that “sham issue advocacy by non-party groups” was a “problem” that BCRA “addresses.” Congress, Thompson wrote, “had a compelling interest in enacting the BCRA reforms. The rapidly increasing practices of raising and spending soft money (with a significant focus on sham ‘issue ads’ that unquestionably influence federal elections) fully justify the BCRA reforms.”
Thompson and McCain were the only two Republican senators “firmly committed” to campaign reform, as the New York Times reported in 1997, and that advocacy has apparently cost McCain much support from a part of the right-wing base that would seemingly take to him. Will Thompson’s campaign reform past come back to haunt him?