updated 12/18/2003 5:25:53 PM ET 2003-12-18T22:25:53

The Federal Election Commission chose a new chairman Thursday, electing a Republican who earned the enmity of campaign watchdog groups for opposing the nation’s new campaign finance law.

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Bradley Smith, a former law professor appointed to the commission in 2000, will take over its top job Jan. 1, leading the FEC in its enforcement of new campaign contribution and spending rules during next year’s presidential and congressional election season.

Smith, who had criticized the proposed restrictions of the McCain-Feingold law as a violation of free-speech rights while Congress considered whether to approve them, said he will enforce the law. Campaign finance watchdogs had called for Smith to remove himself from FEC rulemakings spelling out the commission’s interpretation of the new law.

“We will be watching closely to see if his ideological views on campaign finance regulation will have an impact on the way the agency administers the law,” said Paul Sanford of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

Critics 'need to relax'
Smith said of his critics, “I think they need to relax and see what happens.”

The law, upheld last week by the Supreme Court, bans corporate, union and unlimited donations to national party committees and bans corporate- and union-funded ads targeting federal candidates close to elections, among other changes.

Smith succeeds Chairwoman Ellen Weintraub, a Democrat who will serve as the commission’s vice chairwoman next year. Each was elected 5-0 Thursday, with a Democratic commissioner absent.

The six-member commission includes three Republicans and three Democrats nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. They take turns heading the FEC for one-year terms, with the chairmanship alternating between the two parties.

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