By Daniel Rothberg Tribune Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — The Republican campaign organization responsible for websites that appear, at first glance, to support Democratic candidates has backpedaled a bit, altering the way they seek donations.
When visitors call up the websites, they are still greeted with friendly photos of Democratic candidates next to mock logos with shout-outs like “Nancy Pelosi for Congress” and “Kirkpatrick for Congress.” But gone is a fundraising form that caused at least two contributors to mistakenly donate not to the candidates, but to the National Republican Congressional Committee, which tries to defeat Democrats running for the House.
Defending the 18 websites earlier this month, the NRCC pledged a refund to anyone who contributed mistakenly. But now the committee appears to have gone a step further, making it clear that donations go toward defeating Democrats rather than supporting them.
Each website now includes a “donate” button that links directly to a fundraising form on the NRCC’s main site.
“We recently updated our contribution pages, as we frequently do, to highlight our efforts to defeat House Democrats in 2014 and prevent Nancy Pelosi from ever being speaker of the House again,” NRCC spokesman Daniel Scarpinato said in a statement Monday.
In addition to at least two news reports of mistaken donations, the website tweak comes after a New Jersey Democratic group filed a Federal Election Commission complaint over the fake campaign websites. According to the complaint, the NRCC had established 15 websites for Bill Hughes Jr., a Democratic candidate running in the state’s 2nd Congressional District.
“As part of its fundraising efforts, since October 2013, the NRCC has recently engaged in deceptive, misleading and potentially fraudulent activity by establishing a website that is branded as the website of a Democratic congressional candidate,” the complaint alleges. “The website is seeking donations — and thus seeks to profit in bad faith, through false, fraudulent and deceptive tactics — from utilizing the name of a Democratic congressional candidate all in violation of (U.S. code).”
Paul S. Ryan, a senior counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, said this month that the NRCC sites violated an FEC rule that prohibits noncandidate committees from using a candidate’s name in headlines, titles and letterheads, if the use does not express apparent opposition to the candidate.
“These websites are on the opposite end of the spectrum,” Ryan said. “A name preceding the term ‘for Congress’ is textbook pro-candidate advocacy.”
The NRCC’s Democratic counterpart used the recent changes as an opportunity to condemn the GOP effort.
“It says a lot that it takes criticism from legal experts and editorial boards across the country for the NRCC to decide it’s wrong to trick people into giving them donations,” Josh Schwerin, a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman, said in a statement Monday.
But the websites were not all bad news for Democrats. A spokesman for Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., one of the candidates targeted by the NRCC campaign, tweeted Feb. 6 that Sinema’s grass-roots donors gave $4,000 in response to the mock website.
Despite criticism, Scarpinato, who has previously said the NRCC owns hundreds of URLs, said the committee still planned to launch additional websites.
“It’s no surprise that Democrats are nervous that the truth is finally getting out about their disastrous records, but despite their whining, we plan on continuing to showcase their support for Obamacare and other failed Washington policies straight through to Election Day,” he said.