Republican Look-Alike Sites Mocking Democrats May Violate Rules

National Journal

The National Republican Congressional Committee proudly launched a faux campaign website for Democratic candidate Domenic Recchia this week, mocking him as a "career politician … asking for your vote." They even bought Google ads to direct New Yorkers to www.domenic-recchia.com, designed at first glance to look like it could be Recchia's own, down to the same yellow star replacing the dot in the 'i' of his last name.

The problem is such a look-alike site, with a banner blaring "Domenic Recchia for Congress," may violate Federal Election Commission regulations for confusing the public, election lawyers say.

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"This doesn't even strike me as a close call," said Paul S. Ryan, senior counsel for the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan campaign watchdog group. "It's a slam dunk."

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The Recchia site is just the latest in a series of mocking microsites the NRCC has put online to attack, taunt, and otherwise annoy Democratic congressional candidates from Montana to New York to West Virginia.

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Each site follows a similar model of a URL (nickrahallforcongress.com, for example) that looks just like a candidate's, a headline suggesting it is an official site ("Nick Rahall for Congress"), biting attacks against the candidate ("Rahall's budget was so far left of the mainstream … ") and then a donate button—with funds directed to the NRCC.

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Andrea Bozek, a spokeswoman for the NRCC, defended the sites as "100 percent" legal.

"The real reason Democrats are whining about these websites is because the web traffic has been off the charts and as a result voters are learning the truth about their candidates' disastrous records," she said. "Not only are these sites extremely effective but they are l00 percent legal—it's no surprise that Democrats are running scared."

The GOP campaign arm is buying search ads to promote the sites. For instance, when residents of the Staten Island district that Recchia is running in search his name, the first result is an ad directing them to the NRCC site. "Domenic Recchia is Running for Congress Learn More Today," the ad says.

Voters in Montana who google the name of John Lewis, the Democratic congressional candidate there, see johnlewis4congress.com, the NRCC site, as the first result. "John Lewis Has a Plan for Montana Go to this Site To Learn More," the ad says. 

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After the NRCC launched three such sites, including one targeting New York Democratic congressional candidate Sean Eldridge, Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Georgia, deputy chairman of the NRCC, wrote in a September fundraising pitch to donors, "We ruined three Democrats' campaign launches last week and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (Pelosi's campaign machine) couldn't be more upset."

Under FEC regulations, political committees cannot use a candidate's name in a "special project," such as a microsite, unless it "clearly and unambiguously shows opposition to the named candidate."

The detailed texts of the sites do clearly show such opposition—the Recchia site calls him "shady" and alleges "mobster" ties—but Ryan said that does not appear sufficient to pass muster based on past FEC precedent.

"Neither the URL nor the headline at the top of the webpage show opposition," Ryan said. "While it certainly becomes clear while you read into the body of the text of this webpage that the political party opposes Recchia's candidacy, it is not clear from the title or the URL."

Larry Noble, a former general counsel of the FEC and now the head of a bipartisan Americans for Campaign Reform, said there is a "strong argument" that the NRCC sites are over the line.

"Part of their attempt is to sow confusion and draw people there who would be looking for the candidate's website," Noble said. The FEC rules exist, he said, to try to avoid such voter confusion. "All the candidate has is their name."

To defend the sites, the NRCC referred National Journal to Mark Braden, a former chief counsel for the Republican National Committee. "Do I think it's a violation? No," Braden said, adding the sites are "pretty clear" they are in opposition to the named candidates.

Legality aside, whether the elections commission, which is equally divided between three Republicans and three Democrats and even more gridlocked than Capitol Hill, would ever crack down on the microsites is another matter, Noble said.

"Would there be four votes at the FEC to do anything about it?" he asked. "I have some serious doubts."

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