Photographs and video from Sen. Gary Peters’ campaign website have surfaced on a “dark money” group’s new pro-Peters ad, raising questions about illegal coordination between the groups.
The Michigan Democrat is exploiting a legal gray area to improperly coordinate with VoteVets, a progressive veterans advocacy group, campaign finance experts say.
The Peters campaign webpage, “What Michiganders Need to Know” posted over the summer and on Nov. 1 several photos, videos, and links to text about Mr. Peters’ record and his service in the U.S. Navy Reserve reappeared in the ad.
Later in November, VoteVets announced a $750,000 ad buy in support of Mr. Peters, including a television ad that uses identical photos and videos from the campaign’s webpage. The script read by a narrator in the 30-second VoteVets spot also nearly mirrors text appearing in black banners in documents posted to the campaign’s website.
After reviewing this material, campaign finance and election law attorney Jessica Furst Johnson told The Washington Times that Mr. Peters had definitely gone “over the line.”
Ms. Furst Johnson, who has previously worked for Republicans, said the Peters campaign appeared to be in violation of the rules governing coordinated communication between such groups. “Dark money” typically refers to political spending by certain exempted nonprofit groups, including labor unions, trade associations and “social welfare” organizations, who aren’t required to disclose their donors publicly.
“It’s very difficult to look at that [material] and see that was not a suggested communication,” Ms. Furst Johnson said of the Peters campaign website. “It’s pretty clear to me that this is more than just a research book or a [fact sheet], this is a request to run this specific ad.”
The Campaign Legal Center’s Erin Chlopak, however, said she thought the Peters campaign’s actions may not have violated the law but were constructed to exploit the rules governing campaign finance.
“I think it’s just another example of the lax nature of our coordination rules,” Ms. Chlopak said. “It’s a loophole that candidates across the political spectrum exploit, legally.”
VoteVets did not immediately respond to a request for comment on its action. The progressive advocacy group formats its “VoteVets Action Fund” as a 501(c)(4) that does not disclose its donors and has, therefore, been labeled a “dark money” group.
VoteVets’ political action committee identified its top donor in the 2018 cycle as former New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, now weighing a full-scale 2020 presidential bid as a Democrat.
Progressive veterans have focused on Mr. Peters’ reelection not simply because he is a Democratic incumbent who served in the U.S. Navy Reserves, but because his GOP opponent is a veteran too. Mr. Peters is facing Republican challenger John James, a businessman and Army vet who lost a 2018 bid to unseat Democrat Sen. Debbie Stabenow.
In 2020, Mr. James’ chances will be more closely tied to President Trump.
The Peters campaign responded in a statement without addressing whether it coordinated with VoteVets.
“This is publicly available to anyone who wants the facts on Gary’s effective record for Michigan,” said Dan Farough, Mr. Peters campaign manager, in a statement. “Outside special interests — largely funded by one out-of-state billionaire — are already misleading Michiganders with false attacks.”