The message from Sal Russo, the chief strategist for the Tea Party Express, was breathless. “We just got off the phone with the McDaniel campaign,” Russo wrote in an email to the group’s supporters, “and they need our help!”
The problem: The Tea Party Express is an independent group that is promising to intervene in the Mississippi Republican runoff election between Senate candidate Chris McDaniel and Sen. Thad Cochran. As such, the group is not legally allowed to coordinate strategy with McDaniel, or his campaign.
“That would seem to be pretty clear coordination,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks campaign spending, of the Russo email.
Under federal election law, outside groups like Russo’s, which is registered as the Our Country Deserves Better PAC, are allowed to spend money unlimitedly to benefit candidates, but with the restriction that they are not allowed to coordinate spending. A phone call between them urging support, “to me, clearly contradicts the rules,” Krumholz said. “I would think this would raise the red flag for enforcement folks at the Federal Election Commission.”
Russo told National Journal, “We just can’t coordinate expenditures, and we don’t do that.”
The Tea Party Express has not yet reported spending any money on McDaniel’s behalf, but the email suggested that such support is imminent. “We are making emergency preparations and plans to head back to Mississippi to campaign for Tea Party candidate Chris McDaniel,” read one part of the email.
The group ended April with $847,000 in cash and about $95,000 in debts. It has reported spending about $161,000 in so-called independent expenditures thus far this cycle.
The goal of the Russo email was to bolster that war chest, specifically by soliciting money from supporters to help McDaniel, who finished first in the Mississippi primary this week but below the 50 percent threshold he needed to win outright. A runoff will be held in less than three weeks.
“The Tea Party Express is going all in and heading down to Mississippi,” Russo wrote.
Taylor Budowich, executive director of Tea Party Express, said there was no illegal coordination, even if the email “reads a little odd.”
“We congratulated the campaign on winning the primary,” Budowich said of the phone call. He said the McDaniel campaign did not ask for any assistance. “There probably should be a period there, but it’s two separate statements,” he said. “”¦ It’s not the campaign asked us for our help.”
“The law says we cannot coordinate expenditures,” Budowich continued, “You can communicate with a campaign. You can’t coordinate expenditures. Completely, two different things.”
“Chris McDaniel is proud to have the support of the Tea Party Express, and we were happy to receive a call from them expressing their renewed support going into a new electoral cycle, and, as required by law, we avoided any conversation about what they intend to do,” said Noel Fritsch, a spokesman for McDaniel.