On June 4, a page of Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill’s website titled “Missourians Need to Know” blasted her Republican opponent, state Attorney General Josh Hawley, as someone who “does what’s best for his donors” and turns “a blind eye to allegations of pay-to-play” against one of them.
Within just four days, Senate Majority PAC, Democrats’ top outside group focused on Senate races, parroted the charges almost to the letter in a new ad. The TV spot accused Hawley of “refusing to investigate an allegedly illegal pay-to-play scheme” involving the top donor from his previous run for office.
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Coordination between campaigns and outside groups is illegal, though both parties’ election lawyers regularly give candidates a green light to evade that ban by sharing information in the public domain — for example, posting long YouTube clips clearly meant for use by friendly super PACs. Now, McCaskill and other Democratic senators are pushing the limits by essentially posting instruction manuals on how they prefer allied groups to attack their opponents, which super PACs have then turned into ads in within a matter of days or weeks.
The messages are short, featuring just a couple paragraphs or set of bullet points detailing either a line of praise for the senator or criticism aimed at their opponent. Occasionally, they link to larger research documents detailing and backing up the specific claims. Links to these pages appear on the front page of campaigns’ websites under innocuous headlines like "Missourians Need To Know" or "A Special Message for Hoosier Voters."
Brendan Fischer, an attorney with the Campaign Legal Center, a watchdog group, called it a “further deterioration” of campaign finance coordination rules.
“It certainly appears as if Senate Majority PAC is acting as a megadonor-funded vehicle to channel the views of the candidate that they’re supporting,” Fischer said. “They may still be operating independently as a legal matter, but hardly operating independently in any reasonable understanding of term.”
Paul S. Ryan, vice president for policy and litigation at Common Cause, another watchdog group, said though it may not be illegal, it undermines the Democrats’ own arguments for campaign finance reform.
“It has long been the case that Democrats, while on the campaign stump, advocate for campaign finance reform while their own campaign lawyers behind the scenes are weakening or even gutting campaign finance laws,” Ryan said.
The practice is spreading. In early June, in a post titled “A Message North Dakotans Need To See,” Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp’s campaign said she had “voted for billions of dollars in tax breaks for the middle class, small businesses and farmers,” and attacked her opponent, GOP Rep. Kevin Cramer, for increasing the deficit and putting Social Security and Medicare “at risk.” (The message has since been removed, and the URL brings up an error message.)
By June 8, Senate Majority PAC released a new ad bashing Cramer using almost precisely the same language. “Heidi Heitkamp voted for fiscally responsible tax cuts for the middle class, businesses and farmers,” a narrator said in the ad. The narrator also criticized Cramer for boosting the deficit. “And now Cramer says they’ll have to cut Social Security and Medicare to pay for it.”
In Indiana, Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly’s campaign posted under the tagline “Hoosiers should know” on May 31 that Republican opponent Mike Braun “enriched himself at the expense of working Hoosiers,” citing information from an Associated Press story on Braun’s business history published during the Republican primary. Six days later, Senate Majority PAC released a new ad in Indiana also highlighting details from the AP story on Braun’s business record.
Donnelly’s campaign updated the section of its website with a new post on June 14. The new message said Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Braun were "lying about Joe Donnelly in order to distract voters from Mike Braun’s terrible outsourcing record." On Tuesday, five days later, Senate Majority PAC released two new statewide ads in Indiana — one attacking Braun by labeling him "Mr. Outsourcing," and a second featuring Indiana voters praising Donnelly’s record on the issue.
Senate Majority PAC has spent more than $3.4 million in Indiana so far this cycle attacking Braun and boosting Donnelly.
In early June, Sen. Jon Tester’s (D-Mont.) campaign published a new post titled “What Montanans need to know” labeling his opponent, state Auditor Matt Rosendale, a “multimillionaire East Coast developer.” The post also said Rosendale bought his own ranch for more than $2 million and pushed for land use rules that would help developers and hurt farmers.
Eight days later, Senate Majority PAC released a new ad calling Rosendale an “East Coast millionaire developer” and saying that Rosendale “bought our land, including a multimillion-dollar trophy ranch, and supported transferring public lands, helping developers and hurting us.”
Despite that, Tester has been an outspoken supporter of campaign finance reform. In a local news interview Sunday — a debate in which Rosendale did not participate — Tester criticized the Citizens United Supreme Court decision. “We are seeing incredible amounts of money flow into these races by people who have no connection to Montana whatsoever,” calling it a “big problem.”
Senate Majority PAC has spent more than $1 million backing Tester so far this cycle, while Republican groups have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars against him, and several groups spent more than $3 million boosting Rosendale in the primary.
“There is only one candidate in this race trying to get dark money out of politics: Jon Tester,” said Chris Meagher, a spokesman for Tester’s campaign, pointing to a 2015 vote Rosendale cast against a bill in the state Legislature that required increased disclosure from outside groups.
Indeed, Rosendale’s campaign also tiptoes the line of coordination with outside groups. The Montana Post, a local liberal website, reported earlier this year that video footage of Rosendale posted on his website was used by the Club for Growth in a primary ad backing him. In Florida, End Citizens United has filed a complaint with the FEC against Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who is running for Senate, alleging he coordinated with a super PAC he chaired before entering the race earlier this year.
A spokesman for Senate Majority PAC declined to comment for this article. Spokespeople for Heitkamp and Donnelly also declined to comment, and McCaskill’s campaign did not return multiple emails requesting comment.
These practices have been increasingly common in recent election cycles. In 2014, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Senate Majority PAC were subject to an FEC complaint for a similar case where there were similarities between information posted on Shaheen’s website and a subsequent ad from the outside group. The FEC said the group didn’t violate campaign finance laws, and specifically said communication resulting from use of publicly available information on a candidate’s website was not enough to violate conduct standards for coordination.
So far in 2018, it is happening frequently. The race in Missouri in particular has been a lightning rod for outside spending so far this cycle. More than $3.5 million has been spent by Republican groups, while Senate Majority PAC has spent more than $4 million boosting her and attacking Hawley, according to data from Advertising Analytics.
On May 1, McCaskill’s campaign posted under the headline “Missourians need to know” attacking Hawley over his tenure as the state’s attorney general, saying “corruption in Jefferson City has never seemed worse” and listing bullet points criticizing Hawley for his handling of the Greitens scandals.
Three weeks later, Senate Majority PAC released a new ad where a narrator began: “A governor under fire. A capital awash in corruption. In the middle, Attorney General Josh Hawley.”