Candidates Are Now Suggesting Ad Copy for Super PACs

Bolder than ever, campaigns and the super PACs that support them coordinate in plain sight.

US Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (C), D-NH, speaks during a press conference to highlight the impact of the government shutdown on small bussinesses on October 3, 2013 in the Mansfield Room of the US Capitol in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Shane Goldmacher
Add to Briefcase
Shane Goldmacher
April 24, 2014, 11:23 a.m.

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.

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