Republican presidential candidate John McCain is a conservative with a solid pro-life record: he favors the repeal of Roe v. Wade and has cast more than a dozen Senate votes to restrict or eliminate abortion. Yet this week the National Right to Life Committee is running radio ads in South Carolina that declare, "If you want a strongly pro-life president, then on February 19, don't support John McCain."

Why? It's got nothing to do with abortion. At stake is something far more important to many interest groups: money.

McCain supports campaign finance reform, something the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) adamantly opposes. Go to the group's website and you'll find almost as much about the evils of finance reform as about the need to limit abortion. Campaign finance reform, the Right to Life Committee says, "is strongly opposed by many groups, but especially organizations such as NRLC, the Christian Coalition and the NRA."

Campaign finance reform would impede fund-raising and threaten the income of Right to Life Committee staffers. Because of this, the NRLC has been denouncing McCain for years: in 1998, for instance, it wrote to all of the nation's Catholic bishops, blasting him. Now, as the nomination campaign gets serious, the Right to Life Committee is stepping up its attacks, while lauding McCain's rival George W. Bush.

Campaign finance reform would impede fund-raising and threaten the income of Right to Life Committee staffers.

On their abortion records, Bush and McCain appear all but identical. But Bush is a fund-raising virtuoso who has vowed to block any campaign finance reform. Lately Bush campaign strategists have been telling reporters that the pro-life lobby is their secret weapon against McCain. Last week the NRLC pressured South Carolina Citizens for Life, an affiliate group, to denounce McCain and endorse Bush. On Monday Don Griffith, a board member of South Carolina Citizens for Life, resigned to protest what he termed anti-McCain "coercion" by the National Right to Life Committee.

McCain is hardly the only pro-life conservative to incur the NRLC's fury for advocating fund-raising reform. Congressman Asa Hutchinson, a pro-life Republican from Arkansas and one of the "House managers" who presented the impeachment case against President Clinton, has been targeted for defeat by the NRLC, and by Arkansas Right to Life, because he cosponsored a bill that would have regulated campaign donations. Congressmen Marion Berry of Arkansas, Tony Hall of Ohio, Ronnie Shows of Mississippi, and Zach Wamp of Tennessee are other pro-life members of Congress who have incurred the NRLC's wrath because of campaign finance reform, not abortion issues.

But in McCain's case, because presidential politics are involved, the underhandedness of the NRLC's assault is the most intense. Rather than run ads saying, "We oppose campaign finance reform"--a fair enough political position but one that makes the NRLC sound greedy--the group is denouncing McCain as not pro-life. Afraid to be honest about its true concerns, the National Right to Life Committee is instead engaging in political character assassination.

Why is the National Right to Life Committee so touchy about campaign finance reform? Most proposals, including McCain's, would restrict "soft" money. "Hard" campaign donations go directly to candidates, and are capped at $1,000 per donor. "Soft" donations go to groups that lobby for candidates but are not directly controlled by them, and on this type of funds there are no restrictions. The National Right to Life Committee is a leading recipient of soft money, which it uses in part to support candidates such as Bush. If the McCain reform were enacted, donations to the NRLC would almost certainly decline.

The amounts at stake are not inconsequential. At present the NRLC has a $12 million lobbying budget, most of it financed by soft money. In the weeks before the 1996 election, the Republican National Committee gave $650,000 to the NRLC to run ads supporting Republican candidates. For the 2000 election, the figures may be much higher, as the Republican Party has already collected $58 million in soft money, with many more months of fund-raising ahead.
If Bush wins the Republican nomination, millions in soft-money contributions to his party will likely flow to the NRLC. If McCain wins, that may not happen. (Today the NRLC formally endorsed Bush--a financial as much as a policy decision.)