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.electionupdate2014.com 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.”