A ruling by state watchdogs against Dino Rossi's top supporter isn't likely to slow the Building Industry Association of Washington's attacks on Gov. Christine Gregoire, but it may give Democrats a way to blunt the builders' aggressive ads.

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A ruling by state watchdogs against Dino Rossi’s top supporter isn’t likely to slow the Building Industry Association of Washington’s attacks on Gov. Christine Gregoire, but it may give Democrats a club to blunt the builders’ aggressive ads.

The Public Disclosure Commission’s decision Monday that the builders group violated campaign-finance laws also puts Attorney General Rob McKenna, a Republican, in a tough spot.

McKenna must decide whether to seek fines against a group that has been deeply involved in conservative campaigns in recent years, from state Supreme Court races to this year’s governor’s contest. So far, the group has spent $2 million hammering Gregoire, a Democrat.

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“I think the outcome is that it [the PDC ruling] levels the playing field,” said Matt Barreto, a University of Washington political-science professor and expert on voters’ opinions.

“The Republicans have been running ads that Gregoire is getting money from tribes and unions while doing favors for them. Now Democrats will run ads that Rossi is getting support from the BIAW. Voters will be thinking both candidates are getting shady contributions from big supporters,” Barreto said.

The state Public Disclosure Commission (PDC) ruled Monday that the builders violated several campaign laws by not properly reporting more than $500,000 in contributions that passed through a BIAW subsidiary and to a political-action committee, ChangePAC, opposing Gregoire.

The PDC referred the case to McKenna’s office, which will decide by Friday whether to pursue legal action.

McKenna and his staff wouldn’t comment on pending or potential lawsuits.

BIAW Vice President Tom McCabe said the case — no matter what McKenna decides — won’t stop the builders group from running more ads in the last seven weeks of the campaign. The group has pounded Gregoire on a variety of issues.

“There will be no impact on our activities in the [governor’s] race,” McCabe said.

But he said a related lawsuit in Thurston County may do much more damage. Brought by the same lawyers who made the PDC complaint, the lawsuit seeks to restrict the BIAW’s access to the money it now spends on political campaigns.

If the judge rules against the BIAW, McCabe said, it “could severely impact our ability to participate” in the election.

Knoll Lowney, one of the lawyers who brought the suit, agrees that it could be “much more critical to the long term” than the PDC ruling.

Meanwhile, both Democrats and Republicans say big money will still flow into the governor’s race — if not from the BIAW, then other groups, such as the Republican Governors Association, will pick up the slack.

“I think both sides have tons of money,” said former state GOP Chairman Chris Vance. Vance predicted fallout from the PDC case won’t sway voters against Rossi. They care more about education, transportation and the state’s impending budget shortfall, he said.

“Nobody is sitting around the kitchen table saying, ‘I like Dino on the issues but I don’t like those nasty BIAW guys.’ What moves voters is real issues,” Vance said.

But Democrats are likely to use the BIAW’s campaign violations against Rossi. “I expect some sort of counterpunching with advertising or grass-roots activity,” said Paul Berendt, former state Democratic chairman.

Berendt disputes McCabe’s charge that the PDC favors Democrats. The PDC hit Berendt and the Democrats with a $150,000 fine in 2003 for failing to properly disclose about $7 million worth of campaign donations and expenditures during the 2000 election.

“I’ve had my own run-ins with them and never found them to be anybody’s patsy,” he said.

Rossi maintains the BIAW is an independent group and that he has no control over its spending. He said, through a spokeswoman, that the BIAW should face consequences if it broke any laws. Rossi also said he made it clear at the BIAW convention earlier this year the group would have no special influence if he were elected.

Berendt said the BIAW case puts a spotlight on McKenna, a rising star in the state GOP who’s running for re-election this year against Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg.

“A lot of people are watching McKenna and what he’s going to do,” Berendt said. “If he really wants to launch his career for higher office, he needs to slap them [the BIAW] down hard just to show he has independence to do that. If his prosecution is seen as mild or halfhearted, it will look like an inside deal.”

The BIAW backed McKenna’s 2004 campaign for attorney general.

McKenna said his office will treat this “PDC referral exactly the same way we’ve treated every referral from the PDC. That, in turn, is the same way Christine Gregoire’s administration handled PDC referrals when she was attorney general.”

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or byoung@seattletimes.com

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