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According to an audio recording obtained by the Daily Beast, Republican Montana State Auditor and U.S. Senate candidate Matt Rosendale may have illegally coordinated with a top NRA official prior to the conservative gun rights group spending nearly $400,000 on ads attacking Rosendale’s opponent, Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester.
Rosendale’s campaign denies the charges and says the candidate was referring to the pro-gun group’s endorsement in the hotly contested 2018 Senate race.
The Daily Beast reported this morning that Rosendale’s admitted on tape that he talked to Chris Cox, the NRA’s top political strategist for its Institute of Legislative Action. That same group later spent $404,496.35 on political ads opposing Tester, according to Federal Elections Commission records.
“I fully expect the NRA is going to come in… in August sometime,” Rosendale said in the audio recording, which the Daily Beast said was recorded in July 2018. “The Supreme Court confirmations are big. That’s what sent the NRA over the line. Because in ’12, with [Republican Senate nominee Denny Rehberg] they stayed out, they stayed out of Montana. But Chris Cox told me, he’s like, ‘We’re going to be in this race.’”
Rosendale’s prediction that the NRA would jump into Montana’s U.S Senate race in August was off by just a few days. On Sept. 6, the NRA Institute for Legislative Action (NRL-ILA) announced the six-figure ad buy and released a 30-second TV and internet ad on the very issue Rosendale mentioned in the July tape: the U.S. Supreme Court.
NRA-ILA is a 501(c)(4) dark money group whose sources of funding are not known.
In a email statement Tuesday afternoon, Rosendale campaign spokesman Shane Scanlon issued the following statement:
“This is amusing desperation on Jon Tester’s part and it’s completely baseless. The only thing this audio proves is that Matt sought the endorsement of the NRA – and we’re proud to have it. Matt and the NRA have never discussed anything beyond the organization’s membership and endorsement process. If Jon Tester is so desperate to save his seat, perhaps he should focus more on fighting for Montana and defending our Second Amendment rights rather than spreading lies about our campaign.”
A spokeswoman for the NRA-ILA also denied there was coordination.
“At no time did NRA-ILA discuss any communications or activities beyond our membership with Matt Rosendale or his campaign. Any assertion otherwise is completely false,” said NRA-ILA spokeswoman Jennifer Baker.
The audio in the Daily Beast recording appears to contradict Scanlon’s explanation. An unidentified person can be heard asking Rosendale if “outside groups have started spending” on Rosendale’s behalf. There was no mention of an endorsement in the audio segment made publicly available.
Brendan Fischer, director of Federal Election Commission reform programs for the Campaign Legal Center, told the Daily Beast Rosendale’s remarks, together with the eventual ad campaign he alluded to, might satisfy the “three-pronged” legal test for impermissible coordination. The three prongs are payment, content, and conduct.
In a follow-up email with the Montana Free Press, Fischer said the audio recording appears to satisfy the “request or suggestion” clause of the law defining coordination.
“So the NRA-ILA’s political director told Rosendale that the group would be spending ads in his race, apparently gave him a sense of the content of the ads (the Supreme Court), and may also have described the approximate timing (August, although the ads were ultimately run in the first week of September), and Rosendale apparently assented,” Fischer said in an email to Montana Free Press.
Tester’s campaign spokesman Chris Meagher had this to say about the allegations raised by the recent reports:
“This audio raises serious concerns about potential illegal coordination between Matt Rosendale and an outside, dark money group coming into Montana to support him. At a minimum, this is just the latest in a troubling pattern of Matt Rosendale playing fast and loose with campaign finance laws.”
Earlier this year the Campaign Legal Center filed a complaint on the heels of a July 2018 Politico story alleging the NRA-ILA and NRA-Political Victory Fund made coordinated expenditures through the use of a common vendor, which also satisfies the “conduct” prong under the coordination law.
According to the Politico report, a GOP consulting firm, OnMessage, set up a shell corporation called Starboard Strategic that appears indistinguishable from its parent company. The two companies share the same address, the same board of directors and the same offices. The NRA contracted with Starboard for independent expenditures supporting U.S. Senate candidates, and those candidates, in turn, hired OnMessage for consulting work.
Journalist Mike Spies, the author of the July 2018 Politico story, this week reported in The Trace that the pattern has continued in Montana’s U.S. Senate race: Rosendale has been contracting with OnMessage for “media” and “political strategy consulting,” and the NRA-ILA contracted with Starboard Strategic for the ads attacking Tester.
“So not only did Rosendale apparently assent to the NRA’s suggestion that it would run independent expenditures attacking his opponent, his campaign and the NRA used a common vendor, both of which appear to constitute coordination under federal law,” Fischer said.
Alex Tausanovitch is the associate director of democracy and government reform at the Center for American Progress and served four years as counsel to commissioners on the FEC.
Tausanovitch said it’s difficult to imagine a more blatant example of illegal coordination.
“The spirit of the rule is candidates are supposed to be entirely independent of these outside groups, and here we have a recording of the candidate talking about what seems to be a private, substantive conversation with an outside dark money group about the specifics of the campaign,” Tausanovitch said. “That is the kind of thing the FEC could easily look into.”
But according to most campaign watchdogs, that’s not likely to happen.
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University of California – Berkeley law professor and former FEC Chairwoman Ann Ravel said the reason coordination laws exist is to prevent corruption of public officials, but those laws are rarely enforced due to partisan gridlock.
“The principle of campaign finance is that there are monetary limitations and there are legal limitations as to how much money can be given directly to a candidate,” Ravel said. “That is done to prevent the possibility of influencing those candidates in way that can ultimately result in special favors.”
Promising a candidate that you will spend money to influence the outcome of an election is, in effect, an donation to that candidate’s campaign. That unreported contribution is illegal if the candidate doesn’t report it or disclose it, and both parties are culpable, Ravel said.
However, rarely are candidates or committees sanctioned, Ravel said.
The six-member FEC is down to four members, two Republicans and two Democrats. It takes four votes to start an investigation. Ravel said in her time at the FEC from 2013-2017, the FEC had nine cases of alleged illegal coordination come before it.
“The FEC didn’t investigate any of them,” Ravel said.