Raleigh, N.C. — A Democratic group formed to bring legal and ethical challenges against Republican campaigns has filed a complaint with the Federal Elections Commission against American Crossroads' support for Thom Tillis, the Republican U.S. Senate candidate in North Carolina.
The complaint by the American Democracy Legal Fund revolves around a tactic that has been used by Democrats and Republicans in North Carolina and elsewhere to funnel campaign-style footage from campaigns to nonprofit groups, who are technically prohibited from coordinating with an individual campaign.
American Crossroads, an independent spending organization affiliated with Karl Rove, a strategist for former President George W. Bush, has aired ads backing Tillis in his bid to unseat Sen. Kay Hagan, a first-term Democrat. According to Kantar Media, the group has aired nearly $1 million worth of ads since Jan. 1 in North Carolina.
The ADLF is run by Brad Woodhouse, a well known Democratic operative, and and David Brock, who has created a network of Democratic watchdog groups. Earlier this year, the fund filed a complaint with a congressional ethics arm over a Louisiana Senate race.In the case of the North Carolina campaign, ADLF points to an April ad by American Crossroads that lauded Tillis as a "true to our values" Republican who would oppose the Affordable Care Act, which some people call "Obamacare."
Some of the material comes from the Tillis campaign itself. In a practice first made famous by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Tillis has posted a long video showing him in corporate settings, on the campaign trail and talking with his wife. Crossroads lifted a clip from that footage of Tillis speaking with voters to use in the group's ad.The practice supposedly skirts prohibitions on coordination between campaigns, which have fundraising limits, and independent nonprofits such as American Crossroads, which can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money and often don't have to disclose their donors.
"When American Crossroads paid to distribute the Tillis campaign's material, that payment became an illegal, excessive contribution to Tillis's campaign," reads the ADLF complaint. "These actions are in direct violation of the Federal Elections Campaign Act. and its safeguards designed to ensure 'soft money' is not used to fund campaigns for federal office."
Independent spending groups are an increasingly important part of modern political campaigns. Of the roughly $21 million Kantar estimates has been spent on the North Carolina Senate race since Jan. 1, $15.7 million has been spent by groups not directly affiliated with a candidate or political party. Most of those are organized in such a way that they don't face fundraising and spending limits that would apply to candidates, and many don't have disclose where their money comes from.Tillis' campaign declined to comment on the complaint.
"Our ads follow the standards laid out by the FEC," said American Crossroads spokesman Paul Lindsay. "This is a frivolous complaint filed by a partisan Democrat overtly interested in seeking publicity for himself and his liberal organization."
A spokesman for the FEC said the election regulator could not comment on an active complaint.
However, on at least two prior occasions, the FEC has dismissed similar complaints. In a January 2012 ruling, for example, it dismissed a complaint against American Crossroads for helping an Ohio Republican in a U.S. Senate campaign there.
"The Commission found no reason to believe that the Committee accepted an excessive in-kind contribution from American Crossroads in the form of a coordinated communication because there was no information that respondents satisfied any of the tests for the conduct prong of the coordination regulation," according to an FEC summary.
FEC Commissioners who offered their rationale at the time said that American Crossroads did not repeat the candidate's message but rather used the lifted material to create a new message.
If ADLF's complaint were successful, it would have implications for Democrats and Republicans alike. Hagan benefited from at least one commercial aired in the primary that drew from video she had posted online.
It's not just video material that candidates make available for purportedly independent but like-minded groups. It's not unusual to see candidates or political parties post "important messages" that outline a line of attack against an opponent. It's also not unusual to see research and ideas shared by a candidate show up in ads by third-party groups.