FEC Complaints Accuse Dem Anti-Trump Ads of Breaking Campaign Finance Law

DCCC Chairman Ben Ray Luján (D., N.M.) / AP

A watchdog group has accused the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and several of its candidates of using illegal advertising practices this election cycle, asserting that the committee funneled extra money to its campaigns as an ad strategy.

The Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust, or FACT, submitted multiple new complaints to the Federal Election Commission regarding the numerous Democratic television ads linking Republican House candidates to Donald Trump, Politico reported Tuesday. The ads are meant to connect down-ballot Republicans to Trump because of his unpopularity among voters.

The DCCC has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to help Democratic House candidates air ads, exceeding the $48,100 limit for coordinated expenditures in many House races.

Candidates are legally allowed to exceed the $48,100 limit by making "hybrid ads," however. Hybrid ads are granted unlimited spending by splitting the cost of a campaign ad between the candidate and their party, though they must only make generic references to a party while also mentioning local candidates.

But the DCCC has named specific presidential candidates and local House candidates, causing FACT to file complaints with the FEC.

Matt Whitaker, the executive director of FACT and a former U.S. attorney in the George W. Bush administration, called this practice "a clear violation" of campaign finance law, according to Politico.

A DCC spokeswoman declined to comment on the committee's ad strategy but said that FACT is trying to prevent Democrats from linking Trump to House candidates.

A DCCC spokeswoman, Meredith Kelly, released a statement defending the campaign committee against FACT's claims.

"Knowing full well the damage Donald Trump is causing to their poll numbers, House Republicans are desperately grasping at any opportunity to hide their support for him and his dangerous agenda–even resorting to frivolous complaints and meritless legal action," DCCC spokeswoman Meredith Kelly said, according to Politico. "Sadly for them, it's too late to paper over their long and steady support for the unfit and unhinged Donald Trump."

One instance that FACT cites is the DCCC helped California Democrat Doug Applegate, who is challenging incumbent Rep. Darrell Issa (R.). Applegate aired two ads that linked Issa to Trump, according to Politico.

FACT's complaint against Applegate argues that his ads naming Trump are not hybrid ads and that there is thus no legal justification for cost-sharing on them beyond the normal limits without the traditional generic mention of the other party.

Former FEC general counsel Larry Noble said the legal justification for cost-splitting "raise[s] very tricky questions."

"It shows how parties are constantly looking for new ways to get around various limits, in this case, the coordinated expenditure limit," he added.

A portion of the DCCC's expenditures were spent on independent advertising firms, Politico noted.

Among the millions of dollars in the DCCC's independent expenditure filings are over $150,000 in payments to The New Media Firm, Applegate's media consultants, for media buys and production expenses opposing Trump–though the reports do not indicate the district in which the money was spent."

The National Republican Congress Committee said House Democrats are using the FEC's internal deliberations to protect them from using extra money in 2016.

"Democrats are banking on the fact that the FEC's three Democratic commissioners will force a deadlock and save the Clinton campaign and the DCCC from any enforcement action," NRCC spokeswoman Katie Martin said.