A Republican-aligned group is spending at least $2.7 million on broadcast ads in Michigan through the end of the month attacking Democratic Sen. Gary Peters’ response to the coronavirus pandemic, federal disclosure filings show.
The ads hit the airwaves as Democrats filed a formal campaign finance complaint claiming that GOP candidate John James’ campaign illegally solicited the outside organization’s investment in the state’s competitive U.S. Senate race.
The spending by the nonprofit group One Nation — affiliated with the GOP super political action committee Senate Leadership Fund — is part of its plan to commit$4.5 million to the Michigan contest, where James is trying to unseat Peters, a first-term senator from Bloomfield Township.
The money is more than any outside group spent for James in the 2018 race when he lost to Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, by 6.5 percentage points. It’s also the largest ad buy for James so far this cycle, said Simon D. Schuster of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.
“Generally, outside groups don’t intend to invest more than $1 million unless they intend to win the race,” Schuster said.
A Democrat-aligned group called Senate Majority PAC so far has spent $4.2 million in pro-Peters advertising, Schuster noted.
The One Nation ads followed an internal James campaign memo last week noting the lack of a “corresponding conservative ally” going “on the air against Gary Peters” in Michigan to counter $1.6 million in spending by a pro-Peters group called Duty and Honor.
In the memo, campaign consultant Stu Sandler said James was in a “strong position” to win, considering his poll numbers, fundraising and messaging. “With the proper resources, John James is poised to become the next U.S. Senator from Michigan,” Sandler wrote.
James, a Farmington Hills businessman, has outraised Peters for four quarters and had nearly $9.25 million in cash reserves to Peters’ $11.6 million as of July 15. Michigan, which President Donald Trump narrowly won in 2016, is one of the key Senate battlegrounds in the country.
Michigan Democratic Party Chair Lavora Barnes quoted Sandler’s memo in a complaint filed Monday with the Federal Election Commission, alleging that the James campaign “or its agents” had leaked the memo to the press to solicit and direct dark money to support James’ candidacy in violation of campaign finance law.
Federal law prohibits candidates from soliciting or directing funds that aren’t subject to federal campaign contribution limits or reporting requirements.
“The intent of the memorandum is clear — there is no way to read it other than as an ask for outside group spending on behalf of Mr. James,” Barnes wrote, asking the FEC to investigate and impose sanctions for any violations of the law.
“John James will stop at nothing to try to save his flailing campaign, even if it means apparently violating federal law to get dark money support with ads that lie to voters,” party spokesperson Elena Kuhn said.
James campaign spokeswoman Abby Walls said the Democrats’ complaint is “an absurd claim from an organization willing to look the other way while their candidate collects tens of millions in free advertising and who once used his campaign website for the sole purpose of signaling outside help.”
Walls was referring to Peters using his website to provide talking points for outside groups to use to promote his candidacy — the subject of an FEC complaint filed last year against Peters.
There are grounds in the complaint against the James campaign to warrant an investigation by the FEC, said Paul S. Ryan, vice president for policy and litigation at Common Cause.
“It’s not a slam dunk based on what’s in the memo, but the optics certainly look horrible,” said Ryan, who studies and practices federal campaign finance law.
“This type of activity is very troubling. This kind of candidate encouragement of unlimited, potentially undisclosed outside group spending presents the threat of corruption in politics,” he added.
“Hypothetically, even if this outside group and candidate did not break the law, this interaction and encouragement of outside spending cannot be what the Supreme Court intended in Citizens United when it unleashed unlimited money in federal elections but said, explicitly, there’s nothing to worry about, America, because this money is independent of candidates and doesn’t pose the threat of corruption.”
The Democrats allege in the complaint that the James campaign illegally solicited and directed independent spending, while, under the law, one doesn’t “solicit” expenditures but contributions, Ryan noted.
“I think the complaint has merit, but the law that they’ve cited relates specifically to the solicitation and direction of contributions, and what they are complaining about is the campaign encouraging expenditures,” he said. “That legal wrinkle could end up being problematic down the road.”
Ryan said he would also have asked the FEC to investigate whether any spending by dark-money groups made as a result of the James memo were the result of coordination between the campaign and an outside group in violation of federal rules.
“I would have at minimum included that, and it probably would have been my principal claim of potential illegality here,” he said, “because I think it’s reasonable to argue right here you have a candidate requesting outside groups to make expenditures in their race.”