The Republican National Committee has now spent more than $1 million trying to shore up the re-election of National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.), who’s been the sole House beneficiary of the RNC’s independent expenditure program.
With a war chest that dwarfed the Democratic National Committee, the RNC’s independent expenditure program was originally intended to be spent exclusively on Senate races by building a firewall around a trio of its most endangered battlegrounds.
But a collision of unforeseen events, including the legal and political complexities that made it virtually impossible for the NRCC to spend money defending its own chairman, has forced the RNC to enter the fray on behalf of Reynolds — who earlier this fall was considered a safe bet to win re-election.
Officially, the RNC said it is on the air attacking Reynolds’ opponent, multimillionaire Jack Davis (D), because of its financial standing and support for Reynolds.
“We are in a position to do so,” said Danny Diaz, spokesman for the RNC. “This is just further proof of our commitment to Chairman Reynolds and maintaining the GOP majority.”
However, the make-up of the NRCC’s own independent expenditure unit also may have played a role in forcing the RNC’s hand to be the GOP committee on air on behalf of Reynolds. Because the NRCC’s independent expenditure unit is run by Carl Forti, whose main job is communications director for Reynolds at the committee, it’s unclear whether the NRCC could have legally run an IE campaign without violating federal laws that prohibit coordination between individual campaigns, IE units and the party committees.
And some GOP strategists privately noted that, beyond the potential legal complications of an IE campaign benefiting Reynolds, it would create an appearance problem for the NRCC chairman among his fellow lawmakers if his committee’s IE unit steered money away from other critical races in order to benefit his own campaign.
For the last two election cycles, Forti has served as NRCC communications director and also has overseen the committee’s IE unit, making him the only director of any IE unit who also works simultaneously inside a party committee headquarters.
Forti, as well as NRCC Counsel Don McGahn, have said this set-up is well within the bounds of campaign finance laws enacted in 2002 and the subsequent rulings issued by the Federal Election Commission.
“I’m really confident that we’re not even close to the line,” McGahn said recently.
To wear both hats, Forti maintains an office inside the NRCC headquarters on First Street Southeast, where he focuses on national messaging and speaks on a daily basis with national reporters, and an office for the IE unit across the street at the corner of First and D streets Southeast, above Tortilla Coast restaurant.
Forti said he doesn’t talk with campaigns or candidates — McGahn said that job is left to the committee’s political director and field director, who talk on a daily basis with them — and that he gains no inside knowledge from his communications director that would violate the prohibition against coordinating ad campaigns.
“That doesn’t give me strategic knowledge,” he said.
While some campaign lawyers privately question the appropriateness of this arrangement, it’s unclear whether Forti and the NRCC would have been legally capable of running an IE campaign to defend Reynolds, whose political standing plummeted in his Buffalo-based district after the sacandal surrounding ex-Rep. Mark Foley’s (R-Fla.) behavior with House pages four weeks ago.
The RNC ads went on the air Oct. 18, according to filings with FEC. In all, the committee’s IE unit has spent more than $935,000 on media buys attacking Davis and another $90,000 on polling, research and production for those ads.
In the past two weeks, Reynolds has solidified his position in public and private polls, edging slightly ahead in what some analysts consider a race that will be determined by how sound his voter turnout operation is.
Without speaking directly to other candidates and campaigns, Forti has for the last four years been one of Reynolds’ closest political advisers, talking to him on a near-daily basis.
Such close interaction with Reynolds would put Forti — and therefore the entire NRCC IE unit — close to or over the legal line in running ads against Davis or in support of Reynolds. Under guidelines established by the FEC, any “substantial discussion” between Forti and Reynolds or his campaign staff in Buffalo about what the NRCC chairman was doing in his own campaign would cross the line of coordinating between the candidate and the party committee’s IE unit.
“A discussion is substantial within the meaning of this paragraph if information about the candidate’s or political party committee’s campaign plans, projects, activities or needs is conveyed to a person paying for the communication,” the FEC wrote a few years ago.
McGahn declined to address whether it would have been legal for the NRCC to mount an IE campaign defending Reynolds. And Forti, in an apparent nod to the coordination issue, said of the RNC’s ads: “I had no idea the RNC was doing anything until I saw the ad on TV.”
Further complicating the legal hoops of the ad campaign attacking Davis, Terry Nelson has been the point man for the RNC’s IE campaigns, focusing on Senate races in Ohio, Tennessee and Missouri. Unlike Forti, Nelson is an outside consultant not employed by the RNC in any fashion other than his contract to do the IE campaign, working from his own offices.
But Nelson serves as a consultant on the Reynolds campaign, as well as many other House GOP campaigns, making it illegal for him to mount an IE campaign benefiting of Reynolds. Instead, the RNC employed the GOP media firm of Stevens Reed Curcio & Potholm to do the ads on behalf of Reynolds.
Similar to Nelson’s role as outside consultant running the RNC IE campaign, Curt Anderson is in charge of the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s IE unit this cycle. He works out of his consulting office.
In the 2004 cycle, Anderson ran the RNC’s IE unit. One GOP strategist who worked for the RNC in 2004 said that Anderson appeared inside the committee’s walls just once that year: to sign the paperwork as director of the IE unit.
Among Democratic committees, John Lapp is running the IE unit for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in an office across the street from DCCC headquarters. Lapp, however, did serve as the executive director of the DCCC — talking with candidates and campaigns regularly — before moving out to the IE unit earlier this year.
Mike Henry runs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s IE unit out of an office in the Democratic National Committee headquarters.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.