Last year Senator Heidi Heitkamp announced that she would be joining with Montana Democrat Jon Tester in introducing legislation to “push back against dark money in politics.”
“If out-of-state billionaires want to jam North Dakota airwaves with year-round political ads, we should at least know who’s behind them,” she said in a press release about the bill. “North Dakotans have the right to know who’s trying to influence our opinions—whether it’s through TV ads or advocacy groups whose donors are currently undisclosed. This commonsense bill would give voters the transparency they deserve. Our campaign finance system isn’t working, and I’m proud to join Senator Tester in fighting to make sure our government is accountable to voters, not special interests.”
The Senator says she wants to fight dark money groups, yet despite that her campaign skirts federal election laws to coordinate with them.
Case in point, the Senate Majority PAC. That’s a dark money group operated by allies of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (who inherited the PAC from former Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid). They’re already running ads touting Heitkamp’s re-election.
Like this one, released just last week by the PAC, which defends Heitkamp on her vote against Trump’s tax reform:
Republicans are working very hard to tie Heitkamp to national Democratic leaders like Schumer this election cycle. The defense from Democrats to those charges, at least when it comes to the activities of PAC’s like Schumer’s, is that federal election law doesn’t allow coordination between PAC’s and campaigns like Heitkamp’s.
Except that coordination seems to be taking place anyway.
Look at the B-Roll of Heitkamp playing in the ad above. Where did the Senate Majority PAC happen to get their hands on a bunch of very nice footage of Heitkamp? It just so happens that Heitkamp’s campaign helpfully posted it on YouTube:
But it’s more than just B-Roll. Heitkamp’s campaign all but requested the ad from Schumer’s PAC with postings on their website.
Earlier this month Heitkamp’s posted “A Message Voters Need To See” which turned into the message in the Schumer PAC’s ad. The Heitkamp campaign even posted the research that was, in turn, used in Schumer’s ad.
In summary, the Heitkamp campaign put out a call to get a certain message in front of voters. They then provided the talking points for that message and even the B-Roll footage for an ad. The Schumer PAC then assembled those things into a television ad that will be seen by thousands of North Dakotans.
All despite a federal prohibition on coordination between the Senator’s campaign and PAC’s like Schumer’s.
I reached out to Senator Heitkamp for comment this morning but haven’t received a response so far.
This isn’t some innovative new tactic Heitkamp came up with. In 2014 the Washington Post reported on this tactic, calling it a “silent workaround” to the prohibition on coordination. “At a time in which super PACs and nonprofits play a huge role in elections but are barred from coordinating with candidates, this is one way for them to communicate silently, so to speak,” reporter Sean Sullivan wrote.
In 2015 The Atlantic flagged this B-Roll tactic as an example “of how campaigns and outside groups are pushing the limits that prohibit them from coordinating farther than ever.”
Is what Heitkamp and the Schumer PAC have done here legal? Probably. This seems to be a valid loophole exploited by Republican and Democratic candidates around the nation.
Is it a little skeezy? Sure. A more than a bit hypocritical for Heitkamp who has taken a political stand against dark money group’s like Schumer’s PAC.