The National Republican Congressional Committee appears to have set up at least 16 websites meant to appear like the official websites of Democratic candidates, spurring a debate over fair campaign tactics.
The websites appear at first glance as an official webpage for the candidate. But actually reading the text—which is more of a rarity online than you might think—reveals a different reality. On Arizona Democratic candidate Ann Kirkpatrick's fake page, the site reads, "Kirkpatrick is a huge embarrassment to Arizona." For Montana Democratic candidate John Lewis, the fake site flat-out says, "John Lewis is bad for Montana."
Both sites, as well as others, have disclaimers that they are funded by the NRCC at the bottom—not technically buried, but certainly not appearing before the big donate button that users can click to send money to the NRCC.
The NRCC's press secretary Daniel Scarpinato explained the tactic as such:
The idea is people who are looking for information on the candidate, one of the places we all go now is online and so this is a way for folks to find out more about the candidates and information they may not find on the candidate’s own site.
That intent seems fair! That explanation, however, fails to justify why roleplaying as an official mouthpiece for the candidate is not an underhanded way of going about it. TIME wrote that "the tactic smacks of 'spoofing' scams, whereby spammers masquerade under fake phone numbers or email addresses to win trust." In one case, the NRCC refunded a donation made in error.
NRCC spokeswoman Andrea Bozek stated that "Democrats are behind the game in digital … They should be buying the URLs for their candidates. I think that’s a pretty basic campaign tactic.” This is a very funny statement for two reasons. The first is that digital is one of the places where Democrats clearly outdo Republicans—the Obama 2012 campaign demonstrated this. Secondly, I guess the NRCC's idea of digital innovation is to crib tactics from the guys who already own iphone9.com and avatarthemovie3.biz.
Paul S. Ryan of the Campaign Legal Center even said that the websites may violate an FEC regulation prohibiting political parties from using a candidate’s name in special projects. The small websites might fall under such an umbrella. The FEC, however, is notoriously slow in investigating such matters, and the midterm elections will almost definitely be over before they can reach a conclusion.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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