GOP House caucus' new coordinated ad strategy sparks ire of Democrats

11/02/2012 05:35 PM

Not only have House Republicans raised more money to help their candidates than ever before, they are seeking to maximize those dollars in ways Kentucky party organizations haven’t done before.

The House Republican Campaign Caucus has been running ads in western and central Kentucky that have gone after Democratic candidates — sometimes multiple candidates in different races — in the same ad. But the twist is that even though those ads clearly say they’re paid for by the caucus, they have been approved by one candidate.

In western Kentucky, ads running in the Paducah media market have ended with the disclaimer: “Paid for by the House Republican Caucus Campaign Committee … Approved by Richard Heath.”

Heath is the GOP candidate in the 2nd House District running against Democrat Kelly Whitaker for the open seat in Graves and southern McCracken counties vacated by Democrat Fred Nesler.

The first ad the caucus ran starting in mid-October also used that disclaimer of being approved by Heath even as it targeted Whitaker and three other Democratic candidates running in nearby House races in Paducah, Murray and Princeton.

By having the ads approved by a candidate has helped the caucus land a lower ad rate reserved for individual candidates. TV stations charge more to outside groups, party organizations and super PACs than candidates, as the Hill newspaper explains.

That has helped the caucus maximize its money. But the GOP also is taking that strategy of hitting multiple races in the same ad to help the caucus stay under the limit of how much it can contribute to a candidate.

Caucus organizations can coordinate with candidates on ads, but those commercials are then considered an in-kind contribution that must be reported on the candidates’ campaign finance reports with the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance. A caucus committee can match what a candidate raises dollar for dollar, either through in-kind contributions or direct contributions.

Heath’s two campaign finance reports through Oct. 19 don’t reflect any in-kind contributions from the caucus. His campaign has reported raising a total of $40,075. That would mean the Republican caucus couldn’t spend more than that $40,075 on ads it produces in coordination with Heath.

Joe Burgan, a consultant with the Republican caucus, said the group won’t surpass the 50 percent threshold with Heath’s campaign because the first ad will be split up four ways as an in-kind contribution to all four of the Republican candidates running in the four western Kentucky House races.

That’s the first time in Kentucky that strategy has been tried. And Democrats are challenging it.

An attorney for the House Democratic Caucus Campaign Committee wrote in a letter to WPSD-TV that the station should take down the most recent ad for both inaccuracies and for illegal coordination. Anna Whites wrote that because the caucus hasn’t shown any in-kind contributions to Heath for ad time purchased earlier in the month the group must be acting as an independent campaign organization. And it’s illegal for independent groups to coordinate with candidates.

In the absence of proof that there was no improper coordination between the Kentucky House Republican Caucus and Candidate Heath, the ad is facially unlawful and should not be aired … . By allowing this improper coordination and unlawful practice, you have permitted the Candidate to obtain an unfair financial advantage over other candidates.

Sarah Jackson, executive director of the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance, said she wasn’t aware of an outside group using an approval disclaimer of a candidate to get a lower ad rate. She said that wouldn’t be something the registry would regulate. But she said the registry does review the final campaign finance reports that are due a month after the election to see if any groups exceeded the threshold of in-kind contributions to candidates.

The ability of a group to run ads benefiting multiple candidates — and splitting the costs among those candidates — but being approved by just one of them has never been formally challenged before.

Here’s the latest spot the caucus ran against Whitaker in that 2nd House District, which has been red hot lately:

_UPDATED (6:39 p.m.) — Whitaker’s campaign issued a news release blasting the ad as “false and defamatory” and said the caucus and Heath are “subjecting themselves to legal jeopardy.”
The ad makes two claims that Democrats have challenged. First, it says “Kelly Whitaker and her liberal allies” have run deceitful ads that have been pulled.

A Democratic super PAC did see its radio ad taken down by a Bristol Broadcasting radio station earlier in the week. But by definition, that group is an independent expenditure group and cannot coordinate with Whitaker. No ad by Whitaker’s campaign has been pulled by a station.

Secondly, the ad claims that Whitaker won’t “commit to voting against” President Barack Obama, using a clip of an interview with Pure Politics.

She clearly answered the first question in the interview that she didn’t plan to vote for Obama. What she said she was uncertain about is whether she would vote for Romney or not.

Here’s the exchange starting with her answer to the question about whether she plans to vote for Obama.

Whitaker: “I did not vote for him last time and in the past four years, I have not seen anything to change my mind.”

Reporter: “So are you going to vote for Romney then, or are you just going to leave it blank?”

Whitaker “I will have to decide that.”


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