If Democratic U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson is uneasy about Republican complaints that he's violating Senate ethics and federal election rules by appearing in several Democratic Party-sponsored ads, he's not showing it.
Nelson and the Democratic Party insist the spots are issue ads that are perfectly legal under federal election law. But the state GOP this month filed complaints with the Federal Election Commission and the Senate Ethics Committee, claiming Nelson has violated federal election law by coordinating with state and national Democratic Party organizations on radio and television ads featuring Nelson that began airing this summer.
Rather than cowing, Nelson appears to be blatantly challenging his detractors. While previous ads featured Nelson opposing Washington partisanship and proposed cuts to Medicare and Social Security, television ads appearing this week target three Republican U.S. Senate primary candidates looking to take Nelson's seat.
The ad, titled "Peas," dubs Republican Senate candidates Jon Bruning, Don Stenberg and Deb Fischer "three peas in a pod" who seek to cut Medicare or Social Security. Nelson appears in the ad, saying, "I approved this message to stop any plan _ Republican or Democrat _ that weakens Social Security or Medicare."
Asked about the complaints and his latest ad, Nelson insisted the commercials are issue-related, not electioneering ads.
"We had legal advice on each and every one of the issues that you just raised," Nelson said. "There's nothing unusual about the other side filing action."
The Nebraska Democratic Party has spent about $600,000 so far on the ads, according party spokesman Brandon Lorenz. Most of that money has come from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in Washington, he confirmed Thursday.
The Nebraska GOP is crying foul, dubbing the commercials as campaign ads and saying federal election law limits the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to spending $240,000 in coordination with Nelson's campaign.
The ads invoke "hackneyed Democratic campaign cliches to scare seniors citizens that `others,' but not himself, are a threat to Social Security and Medicare," the GOP says in its FEC complaint.
The state Republican Party also says the ads' disclaimers are misleading. Three say the Nebraska Democratic Party paid for them, while another says it was sponsored by the Nebraska State Central Committee. The GOP says all the ads should state they were paid for by the Nebraska Democratic State Central Committee.
Federal election law "doesn't define as much what an issue ad is as it defines what an electioneering ad is," said Randall Adkins, chairman of the University of Nebraska at Omaha's political science department and an expert on campaigns and elections. "I don't think these meet the technical definition of an electioneering ad."
More interesting than the nature of the ads, Adkins said, is the timing of them _ more than a year from the general election. That shows how competitive the race is, he said.
"The Democrats aren't going to give up this seat. This is probably the most competitive Democratic seat in the country," he said. "Of the top five seats that the Republicans want to pick off, Ben Nelson's seat is No. 1. They look at Nelson as a Democrat who's occupying a seat that should be in a safe Republican state."
While Republicans have called the Nelson ads illegal, at least one conservative group appears to be ready to follow Nelson's lead.
Jonathan Collegio with Republican-aligned group American Crossroads said his group will seek to feature candidates it backs in campaign advertising if Nelson's ads pass Federal Election Commission muster.
"It will either radically change campaign law, or Ben Nelson ... and the (Democratic) party are going to be hit with fines that could dramatically affect his re-election hopes," he said.
But Lorenz and the state Democratic Party say no new ground is being broken. Nelson appeared in state party-sponsored ads during his 2006 Senate campaign, Lorenz said.
"These are issue ads, and there isn't a limit regarding spending on issue ads," Lorenz said. "This is a sham complaint from state Republicans because they don't want us to talk about the willingness of Jon Bruning, Don Stenberg and Deb Fischer to cut Social Security and Medicare."