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Harris donates to new GOP fund engaging in state races

A Great Maryland PAC has flown under the radar until now.

Rep. Andy Harris, the state's top-elected Republican official, is attempting to boost GOP candidates running in Maryland legislative races by pumping money into a new organization made possible by relaxed federal campaign finance rules, recently filed reports show.

The novel approach comes less than two weeks before the Nov. 4 election and represents the latest effort by Harris to influence state politics.

Republicans said the ability to use large sums of federal money for television ads and fliers in State House races could help the GOP level the playing field with the Democratic fundraising juggernaut. The new super PAC may accept unlimited contributions.

But Democrats said the new entity, called A Great Maryland, takes advantage of blind spots in the state's campaign finance laws. The group will not have to report most of its donors or expenditures until weeks after the election, for instance.

In a report filed with the Federal Election Commission, Harris noted a $150,000 donation from his federal campaign account to A Great Maryland. Days after the donation, the group bought roughly $100,000 in broadcast television ads in Salisbury and cable spots in Anne Arundel County, records show.

The broadcast ad running on the Eastern Shore criticizes Democratic Sen. James N. Mathias Jr. and Del. Norman H. Conway for being "tax-and-spend peas in a giant liberal pod" with President Barack Obama and Gov. Martin O'Malley, according to several people who have seen the spot.

Harris, a former state senator from Cockeysville who was first elected to the House of Representatives in 2010, has given more than $100,000 to state candidates from his federal campaign committee and also has donated heavily to the state party. He has emerged in recent years as a leader of the state's beleaguered GOP, eager to get involved in down-ballot races.

In that sense, his large donation to A Great Maryland is consistent with past elections.

"Too many politicians go to Annapolis and vote against working families by raising taxes and dramatically increasing spending," Harris said in a statement. "To create jobs and help working families, we need some changes in Annapolis, and I support efforts to do just that."

Democrats appear to have been caught off-guard by the ads.

"I don't think it's right," said Mathias, who said he had no idea who was behind the television spot. "People's freedom of speech — I support that with my every breath — but if you're going to make these kinds of accusations, I think there should be accountability."

In the case of A Great Maryland, it's not even clear who is behind the new committee.

Brandon Wright, a spokesman for the group, would not name its organizers or say whether it will weigh in in the Maryland governor's race. He also would not say which State House races the group intends to target but noted that it is "going after candidates who are not quite friendly to taxpayers."

When asked who had hired him to be a spokesman, Wright would say only that he was hired by A Great Maryland.

A filing with the Maryland State Board of Elections in August shows William F. Chesley, a Crofton Realtor, as the chairman of the group. Anthony James Pelura, an accountant in Severna Park, is listed as the treasurer. The document also included an email address for Chip O'Neil, a Baltimore native and Republican consultant in Washington.

A call to O'Neil was returned by Wright.

Both state political parties have relied for years on slate committees to raise large sums of cash and transfer money into competitive races. Republicans note that Democrats in Maryland have long enjoyed significant advantages in that effort, sometimes out-raising Republicans 10-1.

"They line up at the doors to come in and give [Democrats] $1,000," said House Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga, a Harford County Republican who is one of several lawmakers overseeing the slate committee for her caucus. "I can't have a fundraiser and charge $1,000 a ticket."

But unlike slate committees — which have a $6,000 contribution limit from candidate committees not tied to the slate — A Great Maryland may accept unlimited funds because of a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court's decision.

The group may use the money only for political ads that are not coordinated with candidates.

john.fritze@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jfritze

A story in Saturday’s editions about A Great Maryland  PAC incorrectly identified the group’s treasurer. The treasurer is Anthony James Pelura, who listed a Severna Park address on a campaign finance form.

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