By SIMON D. SCHUSTER
Michigan Campaign Finance Network
LANSING (Oct. 16, 2020) — Advertising spending has already shattered records in Michigan. Numerous outside groups and dark money organizations have been driving that growth, collectively outspending campaigns in a number of crucial races.
And when these national groups get involved in races in unfamiliar territory, where the maxim “all politics is local” still holds, campaigns and political party apparatus are there to guide them.
Candidates cannot legally coordinate with these organizations, which can hide the sources of their funding and avoid federal oversight. Instead, several prominent Michigan campaigns have left the information those groups would need in plain view, turning the creation of political ads into paint-by-numbers.
This is not a new approach, but the sheer volume of spending in this election has made the strategy seem more apparent than ever.
"Super PACs have been trying to work hand-in-hand with the candidates that they are seeking to help elect and there are a number of creative ways that political operatives continue to push the envelope and skirt the anti-coordination laws," said Michael Beckel, research director at the political reform organization Issue One.
In some places it really shows, like the race for the third U.S. House district being vacated by U.S. Rep. Justin Amash (L-Grand Rapids), where Democrat Hillary Scholten is in a close race against Republican Peter Meijer.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) does significant opposition research on their opponents in key races and have made that information public, subtly tucked away on their website. This approach allows DCCC to skirt rules prohibiting coordination with outside spenders, while letting everyone adopt its messaging.
“Peter Meijer, who has a $50 million dollar trust fund, doesn’t get the middle class and will hurt Michigan families to help rich people like himself,” the memo states. It goes on to tell viewers what “voters and voters on the go need to see.”
Michigan Campaign Finance Network has identified at least four different ads — from DCCC, Scholten’s campaign and two dark money groups — that repeat the DCCC talking points nearly to a T. The results are ads that say essentially identical things packaged in a slightly different way. MCFN has made a composite of the ads, where each is played in order and in its entirety.
Campaigns have also been up-front about what they’d like said and shown about them and their opponents. Paul Junge, running to unseat U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly) in the 8th district, has talking points listed on the front page of his campaign’s website, along with an invitation to download a two-minute silent montage of Junge talking to people in various settings: the bread and butter of campaign ads.
Junge campaign spokesperson Rob Wagener said the purpose of featuring the video so prominently was “so people can see Paul out and about … I think it’s a fairly common feature on websites.” Wagener declined to further elaborate on the record.
“I don't think anyone has any doubts that when they put out talking points and B-roll online, they hope that outside groups that are supportive of them will use it,” Beckel said. “These are the types of activities that can be done with a wink and a nod about how they hope their allies will engage in a race.”
This approach for Junge hasn’t resulted in the same level of outside support his opponent has benefitted from. More than $2.2 million in outside spending on broadcast advertising has supported Slotkin compared to about $1 million spent on Junge.
The campaign of U.S. Senator Gary Peters has exploited this strategy to the fullest. Their website has a section called “What Michiganders Need To Know,” where talking points are posted on a regular basis. In 2019 the page provided stock footage, vintage photos of Peters, talking points and advertising targets. Much of it was used by dark money groups supporting the Senator’s reelection.
Jon Hoadley, a Democrat running in the 6th U.S. House district, used a similar phrase on his website and ads have since aired reflecting those talking points. Dana Ferguson, a Democrat running against incumbent U.S. Rep. Jack Bergman (R-Watersmeet) has both headshots and stock footage available on his site.
Last year, the breadth and specificity of the content Peters made available led to a complaint filed against his campaign filed with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) by the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust (FACT), a conservative research organization.
“The information is publicly available to anyone who wants the facts on Gary’s effective record for Michigan," Peters campaign manager Dan Farough told MLive in December, asserting the information was there to counter attack ads against Peters. “It’s important this website is a resource for voters who want the truth.”
Stu Sandler, an adviser for Peters’ Republican challenger John James, disagrees. “This is absolutely signaling and breaks the law,” he said in a statement.
In August, the Michigan Democratic Party proceeded to levy similar, yet different allegations against James’ campaign. They claimed the leaking of an internal campaign memo constituted not a coordination with outside groups but a solicitation for help from them.
Directly asking for help from these groups is also a violation of federal law. While Peters, Junge, Hoadley and others may not directly be asking outside groups to drive their cars, they’ve left the door open and keys in the ignition.
Beckel noted that the boundaries of what constitutes coordination have been left vague, and at time broadened, pushed in the years since the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling. Still, whether or not these kinds of tactics are permitted under federal campaign finance rules is almost irrelevant for now, as the agency tasked with enforcing those rules can’t even dole out punishments.
The Federal Elections Commission (FEC) doesn’t have enough commissioners for a quorum, which is required for it to rule on matters that may be subtler than a flagrant violation. Commissioners are nominated by the White House and confirmed by the U.S. Senate, but with three of the six seats empty and no one currently nominated to those positions, the FEC’s oversight powers may remain curtailed until after the election.