Did a Tea-Party Group Just Illegally Coordinate With Chris McDaniel?

An email from the Tea Party Express to supporters links a phone call from the Senate candidate to a plea for cash.

Mississippi state Sen. Chris McDaniel is challenging Sen. Thad Cochran. 
National Journal
Shane Goldmacher
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Shane Goldmacher
June 5, 2014, 9:22 a.m.

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.

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