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How Campaigns Indirectly Communicate With Outside Groups

It doesn't amount to illegal coordination, but candidates find ways to give instructions to their allies.

Former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland talks with reporters before the senate policy luncheons in the Capitol, in April 2015. Strickland is running for the Senate in Ohio. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland talks with reporters before the senate policy luncheons in the Capitol, in April 2015. Strickland is running for the Senate in Ohio. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Most of Ted Strickland’s website is clearly designed for voters.   

And then there’s the section labeled “OH Needs to Know.” In it, readers are instructed on what kind of message “Ohioans still need to know” about Senate Democratic candidate’s opponent, Sen. Rob Portman, noting the incumbent Republican’s support of NAFTA and the number of job losses the state has suffered as a result of free-trade deals. It even includes links to newspaper stories backing up those claims.   

It’s the kind of material tailor-made for a negative TV ad — and that’s likely the point.  

Instead of average voters, this section of Strickland’s website appears aimed at outside groups, the well-funded organizations that have spent millions of dollars on the Ohio Senate race but legally aren’t allowed to coordinate strategy with candidate’s or their campaigns.   

Legally speaking, however, there’s nothing to stop campaigns from publishing detailed instructions for outside groups like this on their websites.  

And many campaigns appear intent on doing just that, including those of Democratic Senate candidates Deborah Ross of North Carolina, Katie McGinty of Pennsylvania, and Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada.    

Campaigns intimating what they would like outside groups to do isn’t new, and it’s become a widespread practice in both parties.   

In the run-up to the 2014 midterm election, for example, North Carolina Senate GOP nominee Thom Tillis’s campaign issued a memo to supporters detailing which media markets the campaign wanted to see more spending in — and with what message.   

But what stands out now is how bold campaigns are.  

The “OH Needs to Know” tab wasn’t hidden on Strickland’s website, it was labeled on the homepage next to sections like “Meet Ted” and “Issues.”  

Officials running these campaigns have seen such practices go unpunished in recent election cycles, said Paul S. Ryan, deputy executive director of the Campaign Legal Center, and that’s encouraged them not to hold back now.   

“The regulated community and all the political lawyers know this,” he said. “And they’re getting bolder and bolder with every passing every election cycle.”  

(The Federal Election Commission has previously ruled that publicly available information “does not satisfy” the standard for communication.)  

The use of outside groups was popularized following the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which — coupled with other court decisions — paved the way for them to raise and spend millions of dollars on races so long as they did not coordinate with campaigns or party committees.   

But practically speaking, anything short of talking directly to each other has not met the legal standard of coordination, including publishing messages on websites.   

And so this year, the outside group section on the Strickland website was duplicated on the sites of other Senate Democratic candidates.   

McGinty’s website, for example, linked to a note published last week detailing an attack on her foe, Republican Sen. Pat Toomey.   

“Wall Street’s given Toomey $2.7 million in contributions, and Toomey supported privatizing Social Security in the stock market,” the text read. “Sen. Toomey made millions as a Wall Street banker. Then he moved to Hong Kong, working for a billionaire Chinese investor.”  

Ross, running in North Carolina against Sen. Richard Burr, had a similar section on her website, emphasizing a focus on the incumbent Republicans’s long tenure in Washington.   

“North Carolinians should know that Richard Burr is a classic example of what’s wrong with Washington,” it reads. “He has spent his 20-plus years in Congress looking out for himself and the special interests, but not the working people who elected him.”  

In Nevada, Cortez Masto’s campaign focused on Social Security .   

“Congressman Joe Heck has been part of the problem in Washington, voting with Republicans and special interests instead of standing up for Nevada families,” it says.   

Contact Roarty at and follow him on Twitter @Alex_Roarty

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