NRCC Launches Fake News Sites to Attack Democratic Candidates

The House GOP campaign arm, previously criticized for phony Democratic candidate sites, is now in the faux-news game.

National Journal
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Shane Goldmacher
Aug. 12, 2014, 12:01 p.m.

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.elec­tionup­ 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.”