Republican Look-Alike Sites Mocking Democrats May Violate Rules

Could targeted Democrats get the last laugh when it comes to anti-candidate microsites?

National Journal
Add to Briefcase
Shane Goldmacher
Dec. 12, 2013, 12:02 p.m.

The Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Con­gres­sion­al Com­mit­tee proudly launched a faux cam­paign web­site for Demo­crat­ic can­did­ate Domen­ic Rec­chia this week, mock­ing him as a “ca­reer politi­cian “¦ ask­ing for your vote.” They even bought Google ads to dir­ect New York­ers to www.domen­ic-rec­, de­signed at first glance to look like it could be Rec­chia’s own, down to the same yel­low star re­pla­cing the dot in the ‘i’ of his last name.

(Screengrab) National Journal

The prob­lem is such a look-alike site, with a ban­ner blar­ing “Domen­ic Rec­chia for Con­gress,” may vi­ol­ate Fed­er­al Elec­tion Com­mis­sion reg­u­la­tions for con­fus­ing the pub­lic, elec­tion law­yers say. (Screen­grab)

“This doesn’t even strike me as a close call,” said Paul S. Ry­an, seni­or coun­sel for the Cam­paign Leg­al Cen­ter, a non­par­tis­an cam­paign watch­dog group. “It’s a slam dunk.”

The Rec­chia site is just the latest in a series of mock­ing mi­cros­ites the NR­CC has put on­line to at­tack, taunt, and oth­er­wise an­noy Demo­crat­ic con­gres­sion­al can­did­ates from Montana to New York to West Vir­gin­ia.

Each site fol­lows a sim­il­ar mod­el of a URL (nick­ra­hall­for­con­, for ex­ample) that looks just like a can­did­ate’s, a head­line sug­gest­ing it is an of­fi­cial site (“Nick Ra­hall for Con­gress”), bit­ing at­tacks against the can­did­ate (“Ra­hall’s budget was so far left of the main­stream “¦ “) and then a donate but­ton — with funds dir­ec­ted to the NR­CC.

An­drea Bozek, a spokes­wo­man for the NR­CC, de­fen­ded the sites as “100 per­cent” leg­al.

“The real reas­on Demo­crats are whin­ing about these web­sites is be­cause the web traffic has been off the charts and as a res­ult voters are learn­ing the truth about their can­did­ates’ dis­astrous re­cords,” she said. “Not only are these sites ex­tremely ef­fect­ive but they are l00 per­cent leg­al — it’s no sur­prise that Demo­crats are run­ning scared.”

The GOP cam­paign arm is buy­ing search ads to pro­mote the sites. For in­stance, when res­id­ents of the Staten Is­land dis­trict that Rec­chia is run­ning in search his name, the first res­ult is an ad dir­ect­ing them to the NR­CC site. “Domen­ic Rec­chia is Run­ning for Con­gress Learn More Today,” the ad says.

(Screengrab) Screengrab

Voters in Montana who google the name of John Lewis, the Demo­crat­ic con­gres­sion­al can­did­ate there, see john­lewis4­con­, the NR­CC site, as the first res­ult. “John Lewis Has a Plan for Montana Go to this Site To Learn More,” the ad says.  (Screen­grab)

After the NR­CC launched three such sites, in­clud­ing one tar­get­ing New York Demo­crat­ic con­gres­sion­al can­did­ate Sean Eldridge, Rep. Lynn West­mo­re­land, R-Geor­gia, deputy chair­man of the NR­CC, wrote in a Septem­ber fun­drais­ing pitch to donors, “We ruined three Demo­crats’ cam­paign launches last week and the Demo­crat­ic Con­gres­sion­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee (Pelosi’s cam­paign ma­chine) couldn’t be more up­set.”

Un­der FEC reg­u­la­tions, polit­ic­al com­mit­tees can­not use a can­did­ate’s name in a “spe­cial pro­ject,” such as a mi­cros­ite, un­less it “clearly and un­am­bigu­ously shows op­pos­i­tion to the named can­did­ate.”

The de­tailed texts of the sites do clearly show such op­pos­i­tion — the Rec­chia site calls him “shady” and al­leges “mob­ster” ties — but Ry­an said that does not ap­pear suf­fi­cient to pass muster based on past FEC pre­ced­ent.

“Neither the URL nor the head­line at the top of the webpage show op­pos­i­tion,” Ry­an said. “While it cer­tainly be­comes clear while you read in­to the body of the text of this webpage that the polit­ic­al party op­poses Rec­chia’s can­did­acy, it is not clear from the title or the URL.”

Larry Noble, a former gen­er­al coun­sel of the FEC and now the head of a bi­par­tis­an Amer­ic­ans for Cam­paign Re­form, said there is a “strong ar­gu­ment” that the NR­CC sites are over the line.

“Part of their at­tempt is to sow con­fu­sion and draw people there who would be look­ing for the can­did­ate’s web­site,” Noble said. The FEC rules ex­ist, he said, to try to avoid such voter con­fu­sion. “All the can­did­ate has is their name.”

To de­fend the sites, the NR­CC re­ferred Na­tion­al Journ­al to Mark Braden, a former chief coun­sel for the Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee. “Do I think it’s a vi­ol­a­tion? No,” Braden said, adding the sites are “pretty clear” they are in op­pos­i­tion to the named can­did­ates.

Leg­al­ity aside, wheth­er the elec­tions com­mis­sion, which is equally di­vided between three Re­pub­lic­ans and three Demo­crats and even more grid­locked than Cap­it­ol Hill, would ever crack down on the mi­cros­ites is an­oth­er mat­ter, Noble said.

“Would there be four votes at the FEC to do any­thing about it?” he asked. “I have some ser­i­ous doubts.”


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.