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New regulations needed for political ads

A federal judge’s decision has brought chaos to a special election in the Florida Senate. A race to fill an empty seat left by the late Sen. Jim King has prompted special interest groups to spend thousands of dollars on nasty attack ads over a matter of weeks.

In May, a federal judge struck down a 2004 law that required “electioneering communication organizations” to make donor information public. These organizations include political action committees (PACs) and 527 other organizations, which are formed by special interest groups that can spend money without limits to paint candidates in positive or negative lights, as long as they don’t specifically endorse anyone.

The law was seen as a violation of free speech, but now organizations can flood the media with negative ads without anyone knowing who they are. What’s most worrisome is that this election is only between Republican candidates. A primary election today will effectively decide which of four Republicans wins the District 8 Senate seat in October’s run-off election, as there is no Democratic challenger.

The candidate who may receive the most negative attention is former state House Speaker John Thrasher. According the Associated Press, a group called Conservative Citizens for Justice is running a TV ad that claims Thrasher will fall into scandal and corruption, comparable to South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford lying about his Argentinean mistress or former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich convicted of trying to sell President Barack Obama’s U.S. Senate seat.

Thrasher and his supporters believe the attack ads are funded by personal injury lawyers who oppose his political stance. Republican Party leaders have appeared in TV ads in defense of Thrasher, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

“Now liberal personal injury lawyers are attacking John with ads that purposefully distort his service and character, all because John Thrasher had the courage to help me rein in frivolous lawsuits some lawyers depend on,” Bush said in the ad. “What they are doing is wrong.”

Campaign fundraising reports filed Friday by the Florida Justice Association PAC may back up Bush’s claim. The reports showed that personal-injury lawyers donated $77,000 to the PAC over just two weeks to be spent during the primary.

The chaos has attracted bipartisan concern. Democratic senator Nan Rich called the campaign “a blood bath,” in a Jacksonville Inquirer article.

“Both parties ought to be concerned about what’s going on there. These 527s can work against both parties,” Rich said.

It is alarming that an unplanned election with only one major party participating provoked such large-scale negative campaigning. If Florida does not establish a new law regulating these secretive groups, the next major election could be a nightmare.