New Jersey election officials are looking into whether Republican gubernatorial candidate Steve Lonegan has run afoul of an untested campaign-finance law.
An unfavorable finding could cost Lonegan matching state funds, potentially crippling his candidacy.
In recent days, the Election Law Enforcement Commission has asked for more information about Lonegan's role as New Jersey director of Americans for Prosperity, an antitax group.
A 2001 law says any candidate seeking state matching funds to run for governor must disclose the names of donors to any issue-advocacy organization he managed in the four years before running for governor.
The law aims to prevent stalking-horse candidacies, and to prevent people from skirting maximum-contribution limits, according to election law officials and experts.
Lonegan said he wasn't worried about the commission's requests for more information, saying, "ELEC can do their due diligence. I have no problem with that."
Lonegan said he lived up to the law's intent and noted that he went to the commission seeking clarification.
He was New Jersey director of the antitax group until the fall, when he started running for governor. He said he was simply a functionary who made suggestions that the home office in Washington approved or disapproved.
The law has sweeping implications and could force leaders of unions, citizens' lobbies, policy study groups, and other civic organizations to choose between running for office and giving up their benefactors, said lawyer Jim Bopp, the Terre Haute, Ind., Republican National Committee member who has argued numerous cases against such state and federal campaign laws.
"It's certainly unconstitutional under the First Amendment," he said. "Issue-advocacy groups cannot constitutionally be required to disclose their donors."
That Lonegan is not challenging the constitutionality of the law puzzles veteran political adviser Bill Pascoe, the only consultant to beat the New Jersey Republican machine in recent years.
"What Lonegan ought to do is bring in Jim Bopp and sue the state, force an enforcement action so Bopp can go to court and knock this thing out of the park, get three days of earned media on how the establishment is trying to shaft them," he said.
Pascoe ran Republican Bret Schundler's successful 2001 gubernatorial primary campaign against the party establishment-backed Bob Franks.
One of Lonegan's campaign themes is that he is a hard-core Republican and the only GOP candidate who can draw sharp enough ideological contrasts between himself and Democratic Gov. Corzine to win the general election.
The state could force Lonegan to stop taking state campaign money. And, it could gc after him following the June 2 primary for reimbursement of state money, according to Fred Herrmann, executive director of the commission.
This is an especially thorny problem for Lonegan because money helped make him credible.
In the earliest days of the primary, he became the first to qualify for state campaign funds by raising enough money to prove he had support. Analysts who had dismissed him started paying attention, and his fund-raising picked up because contributors like to back someone they think can win.
On Wednesday night, Lonegan's campaign sent out a notice saying he'd raised even more money. The campaign was hoping to get state matching funds to bring his tally of state and personally raised cash to $1.4 million.
"If Steve Lonegan is to have a shot, he has to have the matching funds that New Jersey provides for its gubernatorial candidates," said political scientist Ben Dworkin of Rider University. "It was a sign of his strength through the state that he was able to get them so quickly."
He added, "If, for whatever reason, they are taken away and he loses that status, it will be extremely difficult to run a competitive race in this primary, where he is already behind."
In the money race, Christie eclipsed him Feb. 19 when the state gave him $760,160 to Lonegan's $533,841.
The challenge to his campaign came from questions raised in a Feb. 12 Associated Press story.
A similar case came up in the 2001 governor's race when Schundler ran against Franks. A few months before hitting the campaign trail, a scholarship group formed by Schundler ran television ads supporting school vouchers.
Franks sued, saying the organization was promoting Schundler's gubernatorial candidacy on an issue dear to primary voters.
But with Bopp defending him, Schundler successfully argued that the ads never encouraged people to vote for Schundler and were therefore not campaign ads.
At the time, it was widely understood that the former Jersey City mayor would run for governor.
Franks sued under a different law than the one which may be applied to Lonegan. Franks lost, but not before running a scathing television ad that implied Schundler's campaign was using scholarship money intended for poor children.
Pascoe said the ad didn't work because people didn't believe Schundler would take money from children and noted that Schundler won the primary.