Candidates can't legally talk strategy with a super PAC. But can they write a super PAC's ad copy?
That's the question raised by a new page on Sen. Jeanne Shaheen's website, in which the New Hampshire Democrat is shopping what appears to be a 30-second ad script for an outside group. The script comes complete with a document backing up the attacks on her opponent, former Sen. Scott Brown, and high-resolution images of the smiling candidate that could populate a potential future ad.
"When Brown was the Senator from Massachusetts he gave big oil and Wall Street billions in special breaks," the site says. "They gave him millions in campaign contributions."
This is the bold new frontier of candidate and super PAC coordination without direct communication. The party committees now post opposition research packets online for super PAC usage. And candidates across the country are posting B-roll clips of themselves on YouTube—Mitch McConnell's now-famed footage is the most recent example.
Still, the suggesting of ad scripts (it takes just under 30 seconds to read the full text on the site aloud) is somewhat new.
"That's not the reason it's on there," said Shaheen spokesman Harrell Kirstein. "We're making sure New Hampshire voters know the truth about Scott Brown's record of voting to give big oil and Wall Street billions in special breaks."
Republicans aren't buying it. "Will bet you a beer that Harry Reid's Majority PAC runs this ridiculous message," wrote Brad Dayspring, communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee on Twitter.
Campaigns in both parties have become increasingly comfortable blurring the lines of coordination in recent years. Back in December 2011, Mitt Romney declared, "I'm not allowed to communicate with a super PAC in any way, shape, or form…. My goodness, if we coordinate in any way whatsoever, we go to the big house."
That hasn't proved the case. Instead, relationships between candidates and their super PAC benefactors have moved ever closer. It wasn't long after Romney's comment that Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum was flying around the country with, and appearing at, the same events as Foster Friess, a billionaire benefactor paying for ads on his behalf. Numerous family members of candidates have created super PACs supporting their relatives. And this year in Oregon, a super PAC backing Republican Senate candidate Monica Wehby has received large contributions from businessman Andrew Miller. Miller and Wehby have been romantically linked, according to local news reports.
Producing ad copy, though, could be thornier legal territory. The federal elections code says that "the dissemination, distribution, or republication, in whole or in part, of any broadcast or any written, graphic, or other form of campaign materials prepared by the candidate" constitutes a contribution to them.
Eric Fehrnstrom, a Brown adviser, suggested the Shaheen message was on the wrong side of the legal line. "Writing 30-second ad scripts and publishing them on your website probably crosses the line of the type of behavior that's allowable," he said in an email.
Still, the Federal Election Commission, equally divided between Democrats and Republicans, has shown little ability or interest in cracking down on coordination. In a key split decision in 2012, the commission decided not to crack down on candidates posting B-roll on YouTube that super PACs then used. Democratic commissioners objected to the practice but could not persuade any of their GOP colleagues to join them.
This article appears in the April 25, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.
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