“I’m Too Good Looking to Go to Prison”

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On a conference call with reporters this morning, Meg Whitman's political strategist Mike Murphy was asked if Whitman and Republican U.S. Senate nominee Carly Fiorina would appear together in TV ads. His reply: "I'm too good-looking to go to prison."

Murphy was making a point about campaign finance law. Even if Whitman's campaign wanted to do that kind of ad with Fiorina (and she probably wouldn't, given that Carly is running well to Meg's right on a host of issues), it would create all sorts of potential legal problems.

Why? The law commonly known as McCain-Feingold attempted to limit the spending of so-called "soft money" -- that is, money that is contributed not directly to a candidate (that's "hard money" in campaign finance language) but to parties and others, with the intention of influencing race. In regulating this area, the law put up strong boundaries between federal campaigns (such as a campaign for U.S. Senate) and state campaigns (such as a campaign for governor).

Federal officials who have sought to play in state races have found themselves facing unpleasant investigations (though not necessarily jail time). In the strangest case, in 2003 California Congressman Darrell Issa was investigated by federal authorities essentially for financial support to himself when he funded his own, short and unsuccessful campaign to run for governor in the recall of Gray Davis.

That said, the good news for Murphy, if he changes his mind, is that the law being violated here is federal so he would end up in the federal pen. It's not the Hollywood Hills, but it's much better than the California state prison system, an unholy mess that's been all but taken over by federal judges.

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