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Despite similar messages, Senate campaigns say there's no coordination with outside groups

  • Author: Nathaniel Herz
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published September 21, 2014

Ask the campaigns of incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Begich and his Republican challenger, Dan Sullivan, if they work with the outside groups spending millions of dollars on TV ads on their race, and the answer is an emphatic "no."

"There's no coordination, obviously. There's none," said Mike Anderson, a spokesman for Sullivan.

In fact, the candidates are legally barred from working with the outside groups involved in the Senate race, based on federal rules intended to curb the corrupting influence of money in politics -- rules that the U.S. Supreme Court used to justify its landmark 2010 decision allowing unlimited donations to outside groups by corporations and unions.

But the boundary between the candidates and the groups supporting them is often much more permeable than one might expect. The Sullivan campaign, for example, uses the same political consulting firm as one of the outside groups aligned with it, as well as the same opposition research files.

The Begich campaign, meanwhile, has used the same digital media and strategy firm as one of the super PACs that supports it, while super PACs supporting both sides have run commercials using B-roll video footage that the candidates have posted to their YouTube channels for no apparent purpose.

There's no indication that the outside groups or the campaigns have broken any rules. But the relationships highlight how the technical definition of coordination leaves ample room for cooperation, and they undermine arguments that the outside spending is actually independent.

"This is coordination," said Craig Holman, the government affairs lobbyist at Public Citizen, a liberal-leaning group pushing for campaign finance reform and tighter rules.

"It only is not coordination in the eyes of the Federal Election Commission," added Holman, referring to the federal entity charged with enforcing the law.

Just how closely aligned are the candidates with the outside groups involved in the race?

Take, for example, a series of attacks on Begich's legacy as Anchorage mayor, a position he held from 2003 to 2009. In late August, the Sullivan campaign sent out an email detailing Begich's "irresponsible fiscal record," which included two paragraphs on a $17 million deficit the city faced after Begich left office.

Two weeks later, when the outside Republican group Crossroads GPS launched a TV ad attacking Begich's mayoral legacy, it used those same two paragraphs -- with identical language, formatting and indentation -- in a five-page document it provided to justify the claims made in the commercial.

The source was America Rising, another Republican organization with a corporate political research arm that sells its materials to campaigns and to outside groups like Crossroads GPS.

"Everyone is paying for the same research, information, and then they can use it at their own discretion. Nobody's getting a free ride; nobody is discussing how they want to deploy that information," said Tim Miller, America Rising's executive director. "It doesn't really make a lot of sense for everyone to hire their own 23-year-old to do research when you could just go buy research from a central warehouse, essentially."

The Sullivan campaign also uses the same political consulting firm, Black Rock Group, as Crossroads GPS' sister organization, American Crossroads, a super PAC that has spent more than $1 million on campaign ads attacking Begich or promoting Sullivan. One of the partners at the firm, Mike Dubke, serves as a strategist for Sullivan's campaign; another, Carl Forti, is the political director for American Crossroads.

Miller and Dubke both say their firms' arrangements are permissible because they have different employees working on each side of a firewall between the campaigns and the outside groups.

Dubke said he works on some projects alongside Forti, like one that concerns a bird called the sage grouse. But they don't interact on Alaska issues, and Forti works for American Crossroads out of a separate office, Dubke said.

"We go out of our way to make sure that we don't ever get close to the line of talking about Alaska," Dubke said.

Dubke's consulting firm has worked with another Republican candidate who simultaneously received support from the Crossroads groups: Rick Berg, who lost his U.S. Senate race in 2012 in Montana.

"I can see how somebody just looking at it on the surface would say, 'Wait, wait, that doesn't make sense,' " Dubke said. But, he added: "There's just not that many political professionals out there."

"When you have such a limited group of folks on both sides, it's not unusual that you'd find this," he said.

Begich's campaign doesn't appear to have a similar arrangement with a consulting firm that also works for an outside group involved in the Alaska Senate race, based on a review of federal filings that detail the Begich campaign's spending.

But the campaign does share vendors with the super PAC that supports it, Put Alaska First, as well as with Senate Majority PAC -- the allied outside group from which Put Alaska First draws almost all of its money.

Those two outside groups use the same law firm, Perkins Coie, as the Begich campaign. And Well & Lighthouse, a digital media and political strategy firm based in Washington, D.C., works for both Begich's campaign and Senate Majority PAC -- though the company's founder said in an email that his firm doesn't get involved in any outside spending in the Alaska race. (Senate Majority PAC is involved in many other campaigns around the country.)

Sullivan's campaign also works with vendors employed by the Crossroads groups, including a law firm, a fundraiser and a direct mail and advertising company.

The use of so-called "common vendors" isn't against the rules, or even unusual -- campaigns and outside groups, for example, might use the same airline, or pay the U.S. Postal Service to mail their literature.

But when it comes to vendors that create, produce or distribute communications for both candidates and outside groups, the Federal Election Commission bars the sharing of strategic information.

Asked if he could speak about Senate Majority PAC's common vendors with the Begich campaign, a spokesman for the PAC, Ty Matsdorf, initially responded in a text message.

"We have a strict firewall policy in place that is rigorously adhered to by all our staff and consultants that ensures that there is no illegal coordination between our organization and any campaign," the message said.

Matsdorf followed up with an email message repeating the statement but did not respond to an additional request for a phone interview or to share the firewall policy.

Jim Lottsfeldt, who runs Put Alaska First, said Senate Majority PAC "doesn't mess around with compliance."

"They follow the law, and everything we do has legal review," he said. "I'm totally comfortable that we haven't done anything wrong, ever."

A spokesman for Begich's campaign, Max Croes, said: "I think it's pretty clear that the firewalls that exist are things our campaign respects and has respected for a long time."

A spokesman for the Sullivan campaign, Mike Anderson, didn't directly respond to a request to speak about how it ensures its vendors don't break coordination rules but said in an emailed statement: "There are very clear guidelines, and our campaign staff, consultants and vendors strictly adhere to them."

A spokesman for Crossroads GPS and American Crossroads, Paul Lindsay, said: "We require our vendors to be in compliance with the FEC rules on coordination."

Those claims are likely to go untested over the course of the race because the Federal Election Commission "doesn't enforce," said Larry Noble, who was general counsel for the commission from 1987 to 2000 and now works as an attorney at the Campaign Legal Center, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C.

"If they say, 'We put up a firewall, there's not much sharing of information,' you take their word for it," Noble said.

The six-member Federal Election Commission has not proactively policed the relationships between outside groups and candidates, and its three Democrats and three Republicans frequently deadlock when voting on whether to initiate investigations, Noble said.

The commission's disgruntled vice chair published an op-ed in The New York Times this year titled "How Not to Enforce Campaign Laws."

Another area unlikely to draw any further scrutiny: the generic footage posted by the Sullivan and Begich campaigns to their YouTube accounts.

Sullivan's video is titled "Dan Sullivan Meeting With Alaskans" and is set to music from the 2005 science-fiction thriller film "The Island," directed by Michael Bay. It features clips of Sullivan talking at a factory, walking in the snow with his family and a dog, and standing atop the Dena'ina Civic and Convention Center in downtown Anchorage.

Begich's video is called "Begich's Home" and includes shots of him drinking coffee atop a fishing boat, stepping into a small airplane and looking at a photo album with a senior citizen. (The source of the accompanying music could not be immediately identified.)

Snippets from both videos have been used by outside groups in their TV ads, and the practice has been repeated in several other Senate races. "The Daily Show" host Jon Stewart famously lampooned a clip posted by Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Campaign finance watchdogs say the use of the B-roll is illegal, but the Federal Election Commission has so far failed to agree on rules affecting the practice.

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