NRCC Launches Fake News Sites to Attack Democratic Candidates

The House GOP campaign arm, previously criticized for phony Democratic candidate sites, is now in the faux-news game.

National Journal
Shane Goldmacher
Aug. 12, 2014, 12:01 p.m.

The Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Con­gres­sion­al Com­mit­tee, which came un­der fire earli­er this year for a de­cept­ive series of fake Demo­crat­ic can­did­ate web­sites that it later changed after pub­lic out­cry, has launched a new set of de­cept­ive web­sites, this time de­signed to look like loc­al news sources.

The NR­CC has cre­ated about two dozen of these new faux news sites tar­get­ing Demo­crats, both chal­lengers and in­cum­bents, and is pro­mot­ing them across the coun­try with loc­al­ized Google search ads.

The NR­CC’s single-page sites are de­signed to ap­pear to be a loc­al news portal, with lo­gos like “North County Up­date” or “Cent­ral Val­ley Up­date.” The art­icles be­gin in the im­par­tial voice of a polit­ic­al fact-check­ing site, hop­ing to lure in read­ers. “We’ll take a look at her re­cord and let you de­cide,” starts one. Then they gradu­ally morph in­to more bit­ing lan­guage. At the very bot­tom, in a box, is the dis­claim­er that the NR­CC paid for the site.

“This is a new and ef­fect­ive way to dis­sem­in­ate in­form­a­tion to voters who are in­ter­ested in learn­ing the truth about these Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates,” said An­drea Bozek, com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­or for the NR­CC.

Polit­ic­al strategists on both sides of the aisle say voters have gen­er­ally grown weary and du­bi­ous of polit­ic­al at­tacks that are ac­com­pan­ied by dark clouds and omin­ous mu­sic. Wrap­ping an at­tack in the in­noc­u­ous lan­guage of fact-check­ing, then, makes it more likely to sink in.

“We be­lieve this is the most ef­fect­ive way to present in­form­a­tion to leave a last­ing im­pact on voters,” said Bozek, who de­clined to say how much the NR­CC was spend­ing to pro­mote the sites. The on­line ad spend­ing, be­ing done by the NR­CC’s in­de­pend­ent ex­pendit­ure arm, must even­tu­ally be dis­closed but likely only in the ag­greg­ate.

Demo­crats say it’s telling that Re­pub­lic­ans are re­peatedly re­sort­ing to de­cept­ive tac­tics to push their polit­ic­al agenda. “These sites say more about the NR­CC’s own tox­icity and des­per­a­tion than any­thing else,” said Ry­an Rudom­in­er, a Demo­crat­ic strategist who pre­vi­ously worked for the Demo­crat­ic Con­gres­sion­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee.

The NR­CC’s on­line push comes des­pite the blow­back the com­mit­tee re­ceived for the look-alike Demo­crat­ic sites, which promp­ted a com­plaint from a watch­dog group to the Fed­er­al Elec­tion Com­mis­sion. Un­der pub­lic pres­sure, the NR­CC changed the design of those sites to make it clear­er that con­trib­ut­ors were send­ing their money to the House GOP cam­paign arm and not the Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates whose pic­tures ap­peared on the page.

Just as the NR­CC did last year with the faux-can­did­ate sites, the group is pro­mot­ing its look-alike news sites through Google search ads. So when a voter in Demo­crat­ic Rep. John Bar­row’s Geor­gia dis­trict, for in­stance, searches the con­gress­man’s name on Google, the first ad that shows up leads to the faux news site.

The URL that ap­pears in the ad is www.elec­tionup­ and the text says “Find Out More About John Bar­row. We’ll Provide The Facts: You De­cide.” Once a per­son lands on the page, the ban­ner at the top reads “Au­gusta Up­date” (a city in Bar­row’s dis­trict) and the art­icle be­gins, “Today, we’re re­view­ing Bar­row’s re­cord to see if his cam­paign rhet­or­ic matches his re­cord.”

The rest of the site is less char­it­able: “That kind of re­cord doesn’t sound like someone who puts Geor­gia first. It sounds like someone who has put Pres­id­ent Obama ahead of his con­stitu­ents.”

Among the oth­er 20-plus Demo­crats tar­geted with such sites are Aman­da Renter­ia, Scott Peters, and Ami Be­ra in Cali­for­nia; Ann Cal­lis, Bill En­yart, and Brad Schneider in Illinois; An­drew Ro­man­off in Col­or­ado; Stacy Ap­pel in Iowa; Sean Eldridge in New York; and Nick Ca­sey in West Vir­gin­ia.

The sites ap­pear to be with­in leg­al lim­its, un­like the look-alike can­did­ate pages, which Na­tion­al Journ­al first re­por­ted may have vi­ol­ated fed­er­al elec­tion rules. The NR­CC’s dis­claim­er box on the faux-news sites does not in­clude the URL of the com­mit­tee, which is a re­quire­ment, but that ap­pears to be a minor omis­sion.

“The fact that it’s a faux news site doesn’t raise any cam­paign fin­ance law is­sues,” said Paul S. Ry­an, an at­tor­ney with the Cam­paign Leg­al Cen­ter, which filed the Fed­er­al Elec­tion Com­mis­sion com­plaint about the faux can­did­ate sites for trick­ing voters.

Josh Schwer­in, a spokes­man for the DCCC, still cri­ti­cized the ap­proach. “House Re­pub­lic­ans’ cam­paign strategy to over­come their own his­tor­ic un­pop­ular­ity is to re­sort to de­cep­tion — again,” he said.

Bozek’s re­sponse? “They’re just jeal­ous,” she said, “that they didn’t think of this strategy first.”

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 5160) }}

What We're Following See More »
In Dropout Speech, Santorum Endorses Rubio
3 days ago

As expected after earlier reports on Wednesday, Rick Santorum ended his presidential bid. But less expected: he threw his support to Marco Rubio. After noting he spoke with Rubio the day before for an hour, he said, “Someone who has a real understanding of the threat of ISIS, real understanding of the threat of fundamentalist Islam, and has experience, one of the things I wanted was someone who has experience in this area, and that’s why we decided to support Marco Rubio.” It doesn’t figure to help Rubio much in New Hampshire, but the Santorum nod could pay dividends down the road in southern states.

Rubio, Trump Question Obama’s Mosque Visit
3 days ago

President Obama’s decision to visit a mosque in Baltimore today was never going to be completely uncontroversial. And Donald Trump and Marco Rubio proved it. “Maybe he feels comfortable there,” Trump told interviewer Greta van Susteren on Fox News. “There are a lot of places he can go, and he chose a mosque.” And in New Hampshire, Rubio said of Obama, “Always pitting people against each other. Always. Look at today – he gave a speech at a mosque. Oh, you know, basically implying that America is discriminating against Muslims.”

Cruz Must Max Out on Evangelical Support through Early March
3 days ago

For Ted Cruz, a strong showing in New Hampshire would be nice, but not necessary. That’s because evangelical voters only make up 21% of the Granite State’s population. “But from the February 20 South Carolina primary through March 15, there are nine states (South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, and North Carolina) with an estimated white-Evangelical percentage of the GOP electorate over 60 percent, and another four (Texas, Kansas, Louisiana, and Missouri) that come in over 50 percent.” But after that, he better be in the catbird’s seat, because only four smaller states remain with evangelical voter majorities.

Rubio Now Winning the ‘Endorsement Primary’
2 days ago

Since his strong third-place finish in Iowa, Marco Rubio has won endorsement by two sitting senators and two congressmen, putting him in the lead for the first time of FiveThirtyEight‘s Endorsement Tracker. “Some politicians had put early support behind Jeb Bush — he had led [their] list since August — but since January the only new endorsement he has received was from former presidential candidate Sen. Lindsey Graham.” Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that fueled by resentment, “members of the Bush and Christie campaigns have communicated about their mutual desire to halt … Rubio’s rise in the polls.”

Carly Fiorina Will Not Be Allowed to Debate on Saturday
2 days ago

ABC News has announced the criteria for Saturday’s Republican debate, and that means Carly Fiorina won’t be a part of it. The network is demanding candidates have “a top-three finish in Iowa, a top-six standing in an average of recent New Hampshire polls or a top-six placement in national polls in order for candidates to qualify.” And there will be no “happy hour” undercard debate this time. “So that means no Fiorina vs. Jim Gilmore showdown earlier in the evening for the most ardent of campaign 2016 junkies.