RALEIGH, N.C. — The State Board of Elections declined Thursday to take action against a third-party group that ran television ads critical of Republican gubernatorial nominee Patrick Ballantine.
The state Republican Party had argued that the Washington-based State Capitol Media Project violated the law with the commercial because it advocated expressly against Ballantine.
Following a 90-minute hearing in which members viewed the ad, the board rejected a motion to declare the group a political committee subject to strict rules on what its ads can say and how they are funded.
The three Democratic members on the board voted against the motion, while the two Republicans voted for it.
"I don't think they've crossed the line," said board member Genevieve Sims of Raleigh, a Democrat. "I think the ad is very well done and stayed on the right side of the line."
The GOP members agreed with the state party, arguing that the State Capitol Media Project intended to harm Ballantine's candidacy - even though the ad didn't explicitly oppose his election.
Last month, the board unanimously agreed that a similar ad by the Republican Governors Association was unlawful because it advocated for Ballantine. The board later fined the group $196,260.
"If we really do this fairly ... if we're going to apply the law equally to all parties, than the ad is just as bad" as the RGA's commercial, said Loretta Shinn, a GOP board member from Greenville.
The RGA and the Project are called 527 groups, named after the federal tax code that applies to them. Such groups have become key election players this year, as new federal campaign finance laws do not limit donations to them.
Marshall Hurley, an attorney representing the state GOP, didn't know whether the party would appeal the ruling.
"I think the Board of Elections and its decisions have left many people in the elections arena wonder what the standard was," said Bill Peaslee, the state GOP's chief of staff.
Michael Crowell, the Raleigh-based lawyer for the Project, said he wasn't surprised by the ruling. He argued his client had followed the state rules that limit electioneering, while the RGA "got sloppy" with its ad and broke the law.
"It is a very narrow strike zone, and it's a very narrow strike zone because we're dealing with the First Amendment," Crowell said.
The Project's ad begins with cutouts of "newspaper headlines" about U.S. trade problems. It then flashes to a picture of Ballantine and his name, followed by the words "cut worker retraining programs" and later "do nothing for laid off workers." It then points viewers to a Web site to learn more about "Ballantine's votes against jobs."
The state GOP argued the word "Ballantine" was placed over a rectangular banner like a bumper sticker - a clearly defined qualification in state law for advocating expressly for a candidate. Crowell argued there was no such bumper sticker in the ad.
The state GOP wanted the board to require Democratic Gov. Mike Easley's re-election campaign to refund what the party called in-kind contributions from those ads. Easley's campaign has said it had nothing to do with that ad.
According to the Republican Party, the Project spent $213,131 to run the ad 329 times across the state Aug. 26 to Sept. 2.
The Project's Web site says its purposes include making "voters aware of the failed policies of Republican administrations, governors and candidates."